June 20, 2019: EMBED Investigators Discuss Progress and Transition to Implementation Phase

At the May 2019 meeting of the NIH Collaboratory Steering Committee, we talked with Drs. Ted Melnick and Gail D’Onofrio of EMBED, an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project, to hear about progress and challenges during the UG3 planning phase. The goal of EMBED is to test whether implementation of a user-centered clinical decision support system increases adoption of initiation of buprenorphine/naloxone into the routine emergency care of patients with opioid use disorder. In the UG3 phase, the study team put in place the infrastructure of a pragmatic, multicenter, parallel, group-randomized health IT intervention. EMBED recently transitioned to the UH3 implementation phase and plans to launch the intervention at 20 sites across 5 healthcare systems in August 2019.

“With EMBED, we’re trying to take evidence-based research and implement it to improve practice. EMBED is both a research and patient care project.”

Were there any surprises during the study’s planning phase?

The first surprise came at last year’s Steering Committee meeting, when we met with the Biostatistics and Study Design Core. They encouraged us to change our original study design from stepped-wedge to group-randomized, which we did. We think this advice led to a stronger study. The main reason for this is the group-randomized design’s ability to better account for temporal changes. Since our intervention is being conducted in the middle of an opioid crisis, there are potentially other concurrent interventions that could make it difficult to determine the effect of our intervention. The group-randomized design should give us better insight into whether our intervention is driving behavior change in treating patients with opioid use disorder.

What is an example of a challenge that you were able to overcome with the help of a Core Working Group?

In addition to design advice from the Biostatistics Core, we received expert guidance from the Ethics and Regulatory Core, who helped us prepare for the central IRB process. The Core’s input was essential to how we developed our protocol’s waiver of informed consent, data handling, and protection of patient privacy. We were able to demonstrate to the IRB that our approach was logical and informed. We think this helped the IRB “get it” and allowed us to more efficiently address patient privacy issues in a vulnerable population across multiple healthcare systems.

What other key challenges have you faced?

One challenge was on the IT side with electronic health record (EHR) integration, which required more customization than we initially planned. How we work with EHR vendors is evolving, and we’ve found good partners so that we can integrate across different systems. This has strengthened our intervention so that it is perceived as more universal than one designed only for a specific EHR system.

Another challenge is the general under-resourcing of healthcare delivery systems for pragmatic research. We found that, regardless of budget, getting approval from system leadership for an IT change is often not enough—what is needed is figuring out who is going to make the change, how much time is involved, and whether the team has the bandwidth to complete the task. You cannot underestimate the degree of difficulty a change poses to a health system that is still struggling to get the clinical side of things right.

The way a study is framed to leadership is important—understand what’s motivating them to participate and move a project forward. With EMBED, we’re trying to take evidence-based research and implement it to improve practice. EMBED is both a research and patient care project. We need to impress upon leadership that we can improve patient outcomes and we’ll pay for it, but we need their help and support in navigating the process through the institution.

What words of advice do you have for investigators conducting their first embedded PCT?

  • Study teams should think about potential barriers from the beginning and find solutions quickly.
  • Make sure that health system leadership discusses your project with those on the ground.
  • Enlist the experts your study needs for each site. In our case, we needed both an IT expert for the operational side and a clinical expert, or we couldn’t have moved the project forward.
  • Recognize that there are trade-offs in pragmatic design and remember that you’re working with health systems in which your intervention will need to be replicated.
  • Make your intervention sustainable and easily usable by the clinician, without the need for research or other additional staff.

EMBED is supported within the NIH Collaboratory by a cooperative agreement from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and receives logistical and technical support from the NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center. Read more about EMBED in the Living Textbook, and learn more about the NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects.