July 16, 2019: ACP PEACE Trial Moves From Planning to Implementation Phase: An Interview With Dr. Angelo Volandes

Dr. Angelo Volandes
Dr. Angelo Volandes

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recently approved the Advance Care Planning: Promoting Effective and Aligned Communication in the Elderly (ACP PEACE) trial, an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project, to move from the planning phase to the implementation phase. The goal of ACP PEACE is to evaluate a comprehensive advance care planning program that combines clinician communication skills training and patient video decision aids.

We spoke with Dr. Angelo Volandes, co–principal investigator of ACP PEACE with Dr. James Tulsky, at the NIH Collaboratory Steering Committee meeting in May about what the study team has learned during the planning phase of the trial.

Were there surprises during the planning phase of the study?

There were lots of surprises. The biggest surprise was that most clinicians don’t use the structured variable in the electronic health record (EHR) that we were going to use to extract our primary outcome. The workaround, which I think is actually better, is to use natural language processing (NLP) to abstract our primary outcome from the free text of the clinical note in the EHR.

The other big surprise was that oncologists really enjoyed the intervention. They have been open to the skills training and, if anything, they’ve asked for more.

What is an example of a challenge you were able to overcome with the help of the NIH Collaboratory Core Working Groups?

One challenge we encountered is related to an issue discussed in a paper by NIH Collaboratory investigators Dr. Kevin Weinfurt and Dr. Jeremy Sugarman and colleagues. It has to do with the idea of “broadcast notification.” One of our 3 participating healthcare systems asks patients if they will allow their deidentified medical record data to be used for research purposes. Every patient in that healthcare system has the option to opt out of having their deidentified data used for research purposes. Our other 2 participating healthcare systems don’t do that as a routine matter. So we needed a different approach.

Dr. James Tulsky
Dr. James Tulsky

The idea of broadcast notification—which is new and was developed in the NIH Collaboratory—is to display posters or other notices in healthcare settings that let patients know they can opt out if they have a concern about their deidentified data being shared for research purposes. Our local institutional review board (IRB) was unfamiliar with this approach. Having the Ethics and Regulatory Core help us understand the approach and educate our IRB was incredibly helpful. It was especially helpful to be able to share a published, peer-reviewed paper showing that this was an issue the NIH Collaboratory had studied.

(Editor’s note: Read the article by Weinfurt et al,  “Comparison of Approaches for Notification and Authorization in Pragmatic Clinical Research Evaluating Commonly Used Medical Practices,” in the November 2017 issue of Medical Care.)

What other key challenges have you faced?

There are always competing priorities in real-world oncology clinics. For example, there are quality improvement projects all over the place. When you’re the clinician, how do you devote the appropriate attention and time to this particular project? We feel our project is at the crux of patient-centered care, about understanding the goals, values, and beliefs of patients when it comes to serious illness care. But there are competing priorities. There can be a tension between the time you need to get the project done, for the intervention to truly reach its fruition, versus what a clinic might be willing to do.

What advice do you have for investigators conducting their first embedded pragmatic clinical trial (ePCT)?

It’s really important to get the appropriate buy-in from people in high enough positions of authority so that the project happens. It is not enough to get the chief research officer of a healthcare system to say the project is a great idea. You need the chief marketing officer, the chief executive officer, the finance people to sign off on it. When you’re in the pragmatic research world, it’s no longer just research in a controlled environment. It affects things you didn’t think about—like patient flow, revenue—and everything has to be accounted for. Make sure you get appropriate buy-in from enough stakeholders to know that you’re going to get the project done.

Also, don’t underestimate the costs of information technology (IT). For example, we need a lot more resources for our IT infrastructure now that we have switched from using a structured variable to using NLP to obtain our primary outcome. Make sure you have thought through IT needs, especially in pragmatic trials, where so much is abstracted from the EHR. Think carefully, early on, about how much time you will need from the IT group.

Anything else you want to say about ePCTs or the NIH Collaboratory?

It’s critically important to participate in the regular meetings of the Core Working Groups, to take advantage of them to help you address challenges. For example, when we encountered the problem with obtaining the primary outcome, we presented it to the EHR Core. When we had the challenge with notification and the IRB, we presented it during a meeting of the Ethics and Regulatory Core. The Core Working Groups are most useful when you openly share the challenges you are facing. That’s the way to get help from the Cores. This is my second pragmatic trial, and I’m not perfect. I put it out there because I want help from the experts.

ACP PEACE is supported within the NIH Collaboratory by a cooperative agreement from the NIA and receives logistical and technical support from the NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center. Read more about ACP PEACE in the Living Textbook, and learn more about the NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects.