Teletrials provide hope for rural patients

  • Teletrials first telehealth consult
    Teletrials first telehealth consult
  • Dr Vesselin Petkov
    Dr Vesselin Petkov
  • Dr Vesselin Petkov
    Dr Vesselin Petkov

An innovative health systems research program is helping improve access to care for patients in regional, rural and remote areas.

One-quarter of Australians living in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas do so at the expense of their health. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, RRR populations have poorer health outcomes than those living in major cities, with higher rates of hospitalisations, deaths, and injury combined with less access to and use of primary health care services.

That includes clinical trials and research studies, where people volunteer to try new treatments, devices or tests to help prevent, detect, treat or manage diseases or medical conditions. Clinical trials help determine if new treatments work, and if they are better than what is already available. But even though clinical trials can improve health outcomes, nearly 90% of participants are from metropolitan areas.

For Cairns based anaesthetist Vesselin Petkov, a clinical trial was the best option for a rare form of Hodgkin's lymphoma, but it was only available thousands of kilometres away. He said trying to access that treatment took its toll.

"It's a really tough, tough experience. Not only physically but mentally," he said. "You deal with the side-effects alone, without any family support. When you finish the treatment and get discharged from hospital and don't have anywhere to go. So you go to the airport and hope the side-effects don't kick in.”

The Australian Teletrial Program (ATP) meant Dr Petkov could participate in the clinical trial via a teletrial at his local hospital in Cairns.

"It meant no more early morning flights, personal expenses, dealing with side effects alone away from the family," Dr Petkov says. He is now at the end of his maintenance phase and in full remission. He says while it was not all smooth sailing, he generally felt fine and was able to keep working full time.

Teletrials connect rural and regional doctors with metropolitan specialists through digital communication technologies, allowing them to facilitate clinical trials for diseases such as cancer closer to home for the patient. 

" The program will help improve more equitable access to care for regional patients, as well as [improve] their health outcomes and quality of life. It can also increase collaboration between clinicians and healthcare workers, and develop workforce capability and capacity," says ATP Director Kaye Hewson.

The program was awarded $75m from the Commonwealth Medical Research Future Fund Infrastructure Grant for critical infrastructure and coordination of ATP, to allow people like Dr Petkov access trials closer to home.

As part of the program, Regional Clinical Trial Coordinating Centres (RCCC) have been established in Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria. New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory are separately implementing measures with a shared vision.

The ATP RCCC hubs are fully operational and clinical trial start-up specialists help set up investigator led and commercial sponsored Teletrials. They work with Research Governance Officers, provide Teletrial education, prepare and share Teletrial guidance documents, communicate with metropolitan and local sites, are the liaison point for pharmacy, pathology and imaging services, review protocols, identify patient populations and conduct site feasibility reviews. 

“The RCCCs help make the clinical trials become Teletrials, for RRR patients to access the best health treatment for their condition. Seeing the day-to-day dedication of local teams working together, and then hearing patients are getting treatment they once didn’t have access to, or not easily without travelling, is inspiring”.

Clinicians, nursing staff and clinical trial coordinators interested in upskilling in Teletrials are invited to free good clinical practice training. Register at [email protected].

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