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KU researchers rolling out plan to boost minority participation in cancer clinical trials

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas are launching a strategic communications plan designed to boost participation in cancer clinical trials among minority populations that are historically underserved in the fight against cancer. The series of videos (view here and here), posters, fliers and more will feature patients’ own doctors and nurses while addressing the concerns and questions they most often have about such trials.

Last year, researchers from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications partnered with the Health Communication Research Shared Resource Center of the KU Cancer Center and the Midwest Cancer Alliance to find out what the barriers are for elderly, racial minority populations and those living in rural areas to participating in cancer clinical trials.

In our previous study we learned that most of the patients had heard about clinical trials through the media in two main forms: ads that said ‘come spend the night and get a check’ or in shows like ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ‘House,’” said Joseph Erba, assistant professor of strategic communication and a co-investigator of the study. “The concerns were mostly the same in both of our two settings, inner-city and rural, and that’s due largely to the overall low awareness of cancer clinical trials.”

Participation in the trials is traditionally low and even more so for minority populations. The research team will soon roll out an intervention that encourages patients at the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Tammy Walker Cancer Center in Salina (both clinics are partners in the Midwest Cancer Alliance) to discuss clinical trials with their physicians.

In the previous focus groups and interviews with oncologists, nurses and cancer patients, researchers found that cancer patients often don’t discuss the possibility of taking part in the trials as a treatment option. The videos that will be used in the intervention feature doctors and nurses the patients have met, as well as patients from the same demographic group, encouraging them to discuss the topic with their doctors. The research team has also produced fliers, posters and other print materials to be featured in doctors and nurses’ offices aimed at encouraging medical professionals to discuss clinical trials with their patients.

Their initial research also revealed that many people thought of cancer clinical trials as a last resort or that they might be treated like a “guinea pig” if they took part in a trial. The videos address those and other concerns directly, clarifying that there are many kinds of trials, patients can take part in them at the beginning of their treatment, and that they are aimed at advancing cancer therapies.

“What we really hope to do is change attitudes on cancer clinical trials and encourage people to discuss them with their doctors,” said Mugur Geana, principal investigator of the study and director of the Health Communication Research Shared Resource Center at the KU Cancer Center. “We want to de-mystify trials, and we do that by strategically addressing each of the topics we found through our research is important to people who potentially take part in cancer clinical trials.”

Their initial research also revealed that people indicated they would be more likely to take part in cancer clinical trials when they know doing so can contribute to something bigger than themselves and help future generations — including family members in some cases of genetic cancers — and when they learn that many of today’s cancer treatments were developed through similar trials. The communication plan addresses all of those points while tailoring the materials to each of the clinics’ audiences by featuring the colors, logos, and the health care providers of the cancer clinics the patients attend. 

While delivering the intervention in both settings that serve predominantly African-American and rural, elderly populations, the researchers will evaluate them to gauge their effectiveness. Specifically, they will measure if patients’ knowledge and attitudes about clinical trials have changed and if the number of people taking part in the cancer clinical trials has increased between the initial research phase and the implementation of the communication plans (or strategic communication campaign). If the interventions prove successful, the goal is to expand the intervention to all partner clinics of the Midwest Cancer Alliance. In such cases, the interventions would be tailored to address the attitudes and beliefs of the demographics of cancer patients at each individual setting.

Above all, the interventions are designed to address one of the most significant barriers to underserved populations taking part in cancer clinical trials: lack of discussion between patients and doctors. Minority, rural and elderly populations are already underserved when it comes to participating in clinical trials; it is not that uncommon that a clinical trial would end early because of lack of participants. By addressing patients’ concerns and fostering conversations, the goal of the intervention is to boost participation, which in turn could lead to new, life-saving cancer treatments for individuals around the world.

Images: Video stills from a strategic communications plan designed to boost participation in cancer clinical trials among minority populations. Portraits: Joseph Erba, Mugur Geana.

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