November 1, 2019: Collaboratory PIs Give Advice to New Pragmatic Trials

The NIH Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory program is welcoming new embedded pragmatic clinical trials (ePCTs) on pain management and reducing opioid prescribing as part of the NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative (NIH HEAL Initiative). At the same time, many of the Collaboratory’s early Demonstration Projects are completed and now publishing results. At a recent Collaboratory Steering Committee meeting, we spoke with four of the principal investigators (PIs) of completed trials to glean advice for new trials.

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

Dr. Laura Dember, PI of the Time to Reduce Mortality in End-Stage Renal Disease (TiME) trial (NCT02019225).

Dr. Dember: “An important message is that progress in making big changes to how trials are conducted is going to be incremental. We need to be aspirational, but we also need to recognize that we’re not going to solve all of the problems with one try. We should not be discouraged by the things that don’t work, but rather keep moving forward by building on what we’ve learned.”

Dr. Lynn Debar, PI of the Collaborative Care for Chronic Pain in Primary Care (PPACT) trial (NCT02113592).

Dr. DeBar: “Regarding stakeholder engagement, recognize that these are really complex adaptive systems, and sometimes, more resources and harder pushing is not the way to accomplish your goal. You have to really think through how to communicate: where and how you push requires thinking about all the stakeholders involved.”

Dr. Beverly Green, Co-PI of the Strategies and Opportunities to Stop Colorectal Cancer (STOP CRC) trial (NCT01742065).

Dr. Green: “The collaboration part of bringing the investigators together to figure out the pieces of the puzzle has really been valuable to me. Really try to understand stakeholder engagement, the values of the people involved, and work to align them. This way, when you get it right, embedded pragmatic research can save money, improve health, and be a better experience for staff and patients. It’s a win-win.”

Dr. Susan Huang, PI of the Active Bathing to Eliminate (ABATE) Infection trial (NCT02063867).

Dr. Huang: “Communication is so important because if you have stakeholders at the table, not all of them will have the exact vantage point as you, and you will learn by communicating. And, if you’re learning different things and reaching different forks in the road that require decision-making and troubleshooting, it’s only by talking about them that you get everybody to really understand what the goal is. And in this way, you come up with better solutions than you could come up with yourself.”

What was the biggest lesson learned in conducting your trial?

Dr. Dember:  “It’s important to effectively engage with people on the ground. The extent to which this is possible depends on the setting, but, at least for some interventions, being able to engage with the people who are actually implementing the trial procedures is critical.”

Dr. Huang: “The biggest lesson is the critical nature of the partnership and the investment involved in maintaining it. The strength of our trial, and our ability to conduct it, was dependent on a strong partnership.”

Dr. Debar: “Vertical integration is important: you need high level buy-in, but you also need buy-in from people on the ground who are providing care.”

Dr. Green: “Someone in NIH did the math regarding how much an implementation study costs per participant, and he said, ‘That has to be cheaper.’ This prompted me to think about what things could be answered with embedded research. As a clinician, day to day, I am always making decisions that I don’t really know the answer because there isn’t enough evidence. There are so many questions that need to be answered, and embedded pragmatic research is a great starting point for getting more answers. We’ll never get there by doing this one trial at a time with traditional research.”

Congratulations to all four investigators for their groundbreaking work on their Demonstration Projects!

September 27, 2019: NIH Collaboratory to Serve as Coordinating Center for New Pragmatic Trials Addressing Opioid Crisis

The NIH Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory program is excited to announce that it has received funding to serve as the Resource Coordinating Center for a new group of large-scale embedded pragmatic clinical trials (ePCTs) on pain management and reducing opioid prescribing. As part of the NIH Collaboratory, the Pragmatic and Implementation Studies for the Management of Pain to Reduce Opioid Prescribing (PRISM) Resource Coordinating Center will provide technical support and pragmatic trial expertise for the research that this program funds. PRISM trials will determine the effectiveness of multiple non-opioid interventions for treating pain and assess the impact of implementing interventions or guidelines to improve pain management and reduce reliance on opioids.

The PRISM Resource Coordinating Center funding and new research awards, described below, are part of the NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative (NIH HEAL Initiative). This federal research initiative, launched in early 2018 by NIH Director Francis S. Collins, aims to apply scientific solutions to improve treatments for chronic pain, curb the rates of opioid use disorder and overdose, and achieve long-term recovery for opioid addiction.

“The NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center is excited to be supporting these novel pragmatic trials that address an urgent health crisis. We hope the patients, clinicians, researchers, and health systems will benefit from knowledge we’ve gained supporting complex trials embedded in health care systems over the past 7 years, which will help deliver improvements in pain management to the American public faster.” – Adrian Hernandez, MD, MHS, Vice Dean for Clinical Research, Duke University School of Medicine.

The PRISM awards total approximately $35.7 million and are supported by 8 participating NIH institutes, centers, and offices. With these awards, the NIH Collaboratory will add 4 new large-scale ePCTs to its portfolio of innovative Demonstration Projects. The trials will be conducted at Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts; Kaiser Foundation Research Institute, California; Mayo Clinic, Minnesota; and University of Iowa. They include:

  • Non-pharmacological Options in postoperative Hospital-based And Rehabilitation pain Management (NOHARM) pragmatic clinical trial
  • Fibromyalgia TENS in Physical Therapy Study (TIPS): An embedded pragmatic clinical trial
  • Group-based mindfulness for patients with chronic low back pain in the primary care setting
  • Pragmatic Trial of Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain in Older Adults

The NIH Collaboratory aims to improve the way clinical trials are conducted by creating a new infrastructure for collaborative research with healthcare systems. The Collaboratory has 5 Core Working Groups of experts that help research teams address challenges of conducting research embedded in clinical care, and they collect and disseminate knowledge and best practices learned throughout the process. The ultimate goal is to ensure that healthcare providers and patients can make decisions based on the best available clinical evidence.

Related links:

NIH press release

Duke press release

NIH HEAL Initiative website

The Coordinating Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory is supported by the NIH Common Fund through a cooperative agreement from the Office of Strategic Coordination within the Office of the NIH Director. Read more about the Collaboratory’s Demonstration Projects and the Core Working Groups.

June 25, 2019: GGC4H Awarded Continuation From Planning to Implementation Phase

The investigators of Guiding Good Choices for Health (GGC4H), an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project, have received approval to move from the planning phase to the implementation phase of their study. Congratulations to the GGC4H study team for their excellent work!

At the May 2019 NIH Collaboratory Steering Committee meeting, we talked with Drs. Stacy Sterling, Margaret Kuklinski, and Richard Catalano to hear about progress and challenges during the UG3 planning phase. The goal of GGC4H is to test the feasibility and effectiveness of implementing Guiding Good Choices—a universal evidence-based anticipatory guidance curriculum for parents of early adolescents—in 3 large, integrated healthcare systems serving socioeconomically diverse families.

“Guiding Good Choices is a tested and proven intervention in community and school-based settings. We think primary care is an ideal implementation setting because pediatricians have parents’ trust, and the AAP recommends that they offer anticipatory guidance to parents. Community and school settings do not often have the same advantages.” — Rico Catalano, Co-PI of GGC4H

In the UG3 phase, the study team partnered with 5 pediatric primary care clinics in Kaiser Permanente Northern California, Kaiser Permanente Colorado, and Henry Ford Health System, finalized the trial protocol, obtained IRB approval, and presented UG3 and pilot study findings at 2 recent national meetings: the Society for Prevention Research and the National Academy of Medicine Collaborative for Healthy Parenting in Primary Care.

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

“I’ve been pleased and surprised to see the near universal excitement for Guiding Good Choices across the 3 healthcare systems and in multiple clinics. My previous work has been with adolescents who have already started to develop problems and are clearly at risk. Often when you are engaging those teens and their parents, they are coming from a place of crisis and have a lot of anxiety and worry. With Guiding Good Choices, we’re offering it to all families of young adolescents in the pediatric clinics, and we’re heartened to see pediatricians and parents welcoming this.

“The parents and kids were so enthusiastic and excited in our pilot. It’s been extremely heartening, and I think it bodes well for the reception we’re going to get.” — Stacy Sterling, Co-PI of GGC4H

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

Our study has two core questions: Will Guiding Good Choices improve adolescent behavioral health when offered in a health care setting? Will parents in a health care setting actually enroll in Guiding Good Choices and to what degree? Our initial study design attended more to the second question, and in doing that, raised problems for the valid assessment of effectiveness. These issues could have prevented us from transitioning to the implementation phase, so we needed a good design for assessing both effectiveness and implementation. Our original plan would have included all adolescents who had well visits, but at some clinics, 25% of teens don’t have them. Our new design, developed with the IRB chair and the Biostatistics and Study Design Core, includes everyone who receives care at the pediatric clinic. Although we may enroll some people who don’t engage with the intervention, this will make the study results more generalizable and valid for both effectiveness and implementation.

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

“It’s a really fasted-paced year. I think we have complementary strengths across the leaders at our sites, and that is important. Pay attention to the qualities of your team and how they can help you hit the ground running and eventually help you get across the finish line to the UH3 phase.”  — Margaret Kuklinski, Co-PI of GGC4H

GGC4H is supported within the NIH Collaboratory by a cooperative agreement from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and receives logistical and technical support from the NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center. Read more about GGC4H in the Living Textbook, and learn more about the NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects.

June 7, 2019: Meeting Materials from the 2019 NIH Collaboratory Steering Committee Meeting

The Collaboratory has made available all the presentations from their recent Steering Committee meeting held in Bethesda May 1-2, 2019.

Highlights of Day 1 included updates on the progress and sustainability of the NIH Collaboratory, perspectives on the landscape of embedded PCTs (ePCTs) and the need for real-world evidence, challenges and lessons learned from the UH3 Demonstration Projects, updates on progress and transition plans from the UG3 Demonstration Projects, and discussions on data sharing policy and planning. Day 2 featured an intensive workshop hosted by the NIH with the goal of starting discussions on statistical issues with ePCTs.

View or download the meeting materials on the website.

May 16, 2019: NIH Collaboratory Investigators Author Recommendations for Responding to Guideline or Policy Changes That Affect Ongoing Pragmatic Trials

A new perspective article by NIH Collaboratory investigators describes the unique, unexpected challenges researchers face when clinical practice guidelines and policies change during the conduct of a pragmatic clinical trial (PCT). The article was published online this week in Clinical Trials.

The NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects are PCTs that test interventions to address urgent public health problems. They involve hundreds to thousands of participants and generally include usual care as a control arm. During the course of these years-long trials, clinical practice guidelines and policies changed due to new evidence from observational studies, small trials, and shifting expert opinion. Such changes can have profound effects on usual care and, therefore, threaten the ability of the PCTs to address the questions they were designed to answer. Investigators must strike a balance between the primary ethical obligation to protect patients by adhering to new best-practice guidelines and policy and the secondary, yet crucial, obligation to develop high-quality evidence to improve care.

“PCTs are an important means of producing high-quality evidence needed to better inform clinical practice. However, when guidelines or reimbursement policies change during the conduct of a PCT, the ethical obligation to gather information to develop evidence-based practices may conflict with the primary ethical obligation to participants.” — Curtis et al, Clinical Trials, 2019

Based on their aggregate experience with the NIH Collaboratory, the authors provide broad recommendations and strategies for overcoming these challenges, including protecting the well-being of patients; involving stakeholders, health system leaders, and the entity charged with data and safety monitoring; and actively monitoring changes and site-level responses to them. If changes to the standard of care are merited, investigators should provide equal opportunity and support for the recommended changes. Finally, during the design phase, investigators should communicate with the entities charged with creating guidelines to see what is needed and to anticipate possible future changes.

“The ability to appropriately address the tension between modifications to clinical guidelines and the need to generate quality evidence to support those guidelines is a crucial consideration for the fulfilment of a learning health system.” — Curtis et al, Clinical Trials, 2019

May 8, 2019: Dr. Greg Simon Receives National Suicide Prevention Award

At the Lifesavers Gala in New York last night, Dr. Greg Simon received the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP’s) Research Award for his contributions to suicide prevention. Dr. Simon leads the Suicide Prevention Outreach Trial (SPOT), an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project that builds on previous work demonstrating that patients who answer “yes” to thoughts of self-harm on routinely administered PHQ-9 questionnaires at primary care visits are more likely to attempt suicide. For these high-risk patients, SPOT explores different modes of outreach (care management or online skills training versus usual care) to prevent suicide.

“There’s a conspiracy of silence around suicidal thoughts, because it’s awkward to discuss. So we’ve found that we have to incorporate talking about it into our standard care. Our suicide prevention work is a great example of how research and care keep influencing each other to improve our patients’ health. When research springs from clinicians’ and patients’ questions, ‘learning health systems’ can put results into practice much faster than the oft-cited 17-year lag.” — Dr. Greg Simon, from the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute Press Release

Dr. Simon and his colleagues are also studying how machine-learning models can be used to predict risk of suicide. The models combine the PHQ-9 mental health questionnaire responses with information from electronic health records, including prior suicide attempts and mental health and substance use diagnoses. In a blog post regarding his research (and recent publication) on machine learning, Dr. Simon compares machine learning to warning lights on cars:

Our paper prompted many questions from clinicians and health system leaders about the practical utility of risk predictions:

“Are machine learning algorithms accurate enough to replace clinicians’ judgment?” our clinical partners asked.

“No,” I answered, “but they are accurate enough to direct clinicians’ attention.”

The AFSP also honored four others, including Anderson Cooper, a CNN and 60-minutes correspondent, and Kate Snow, an NBC news correspondent, for their work raising public awareness of suicide prevention.

Read more about what inspired Dr. Simon to study mental health.

May 2, 2019: Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of STOP CRC Trial Finds Wide Variation Across Health Centers

A cost-effectiveness analysis of the Strategies and Opportunities to Stop Colorectal Cancer in Priority Populations (STOP CRC) trial, an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project, revealed wide variation across participating health centers. The study’s findings reflect the complexity of implementing an intervention in pragmatic research involving community health clinics with diverse patient populations, clinic structures, and resources.

The study was published recently in Preventive Medicine.

The STOP CRC trial tested a program to improve colorectal cancer screening rates in 26 clinics within 8 federal qualified health centers in California and Oregon. Intervention clinics embedded a tool in the electronic health record to identify patients who were overdue for screening and mailed a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) kit to these patients. Screening rates were higher overall in intervention clinics than in clinics that practiced usual care, despite low and highly variable rates of implementation of the program among participating clinics.

In the subsequent cost-effectiveness study, variability in program implementation was likewise a key factor in the results. Intervention delivery costs were highly variable across health centers, and the incremental cost-effectiveness of the intervention was diminished somewhat because usual care clinics generated more colonoscopies than intervention clinics after abnormal FIT results.

The study has implications for the design of implementation strategies in pragmatic trials that are embedded in diverse community health centers.

The STOP CRC trial was supported within the NIH Collaboratory by a cooperative agreement from the National Cancer Institute and received logistical and technical support from the NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center. Download a study snapshot of the STOP CRC trial, and learn more about the NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects.

April 19, 2019: Trauma Survivors Outcomes & Support (TSOS) Pragmatic Trial: Revisiting Effectiveness & Implementation Aims (Doug Zatzick, MD)


Doug Zatzick, MD
Professor of Psychiatry
Harborview Medical Center
University of Washington School of Medicine


Trauma Survivors Outcomes & Support (TSOS) Pragmatic Trial: Revisiting Effectiveness & Implementation Aims


Trauma outcomes; Demonstration Project; Hybrid study design; Implementation science; Pragmatic clinical trial; Cluster randomization; Stepped-wedge design; Posttraumatic stress disorder; PRECIS-2; Mental health intervention

Key Points

  • The TSOS Demonstration Project is a cluster-randomized, stepped-wedge trial conducted at 25 U.S. trauma centers. The intervention involves an electronic health record PTSD screen and a baseline PTSD and comorbidity assessment. TSOS is turned on at each site across 4 “waves.”
  • During the course of this hybrid effectiveness-implementation trial, two domains on PRECIS-2 (Pragmatic-Explanatory Continuum Indicator Summary) were scored as more pragmatic and one domain as more explanatory than at the outset of the study.
  • The study team developed a methodology for assessing TSOS implementation aims. Called RAPICE (Rapid Assessment Procedure Informed Clinical Ethnography), the method yielded findings around recurrent intervention and research staff turnover across sites; observations that some patients do not engage in the intervention; and ways to inform a priori secondary hypotheses that suggest per-protocol modifications to the original intention-to-treat analyses.
  • TSOS will present results at the 2020 summit of the American College of Surgeons with the potential to integrate findings into the College’s regulatory and verification processes.

Discussion Themes

Regarding the need to collect outcome data, there may be an important distinction between two aspects of “pragmatic.” That is, while collecting outcome data makes a trial more expensive (one aspect of pragmatic), it doesn’t necessarily affect relevance or generalizability (another, more important, aspect of pragmatic).

Might there be studies which, by design, are not aiming to be on the outer [more pragmatic] spokes of the PRECIS-2 wheel?

Read more about the TSOS Demonstration Project.


#pctGR, @Collaboratory1, @PRECIS_2

April 22, 2019: TiME Trial Confirms Feasibility of Embedding Large Pragmatic Trials in Clinical Care

Laura Dember

The primary results of the Time to Reduce Mortality in End-Stage Renal Disease (TiME) trial, an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project, were published online this month in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. The study confirmed the feasibility of embedding a large pragmatic clinical trial in clinical care delivery.

Although maintenance hemodialysis has long been a staple of care for patients with end-stage renal disease, there are limited data from clinical trials to inform optimal approaches, including the optimal duration of hemodialysis sessions. The TiME trial investigators, in partnership with 2 large dialysis provider organizations, evaluated the effects of a longer hemodialysis session duration on mortality and hospitalization rate among more than 7000 patients receiving care in 266 dialysis facilities.

The TiME trial was discontinued early (median follow-up, 1.1 years) because there was an insufficient difference in mean hemodialysis session duration between the intervention group and the usual care group. The investigators observed no reduction in mortality or hospitalization rate in either group.

Despite ending early, the trial met important objectives for informing the implementation of large pragmatic clinical trials embedded in health care systems. In a large multicenter study with no onsite research personnel, the investigators quickly and efficiently enrolled a large number of participants using an opt-out consent approach. The study data were obtained entirely from the electronic health and administrative records of the partnering dialysis provider organizations and were generated from routine clinical care delivery.

“The TiME trial provides an important foundation for future pragmatic trials in dialysis as well as in other settings,” said Dr. Laura M. Dember of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, the principal investigator of the TiME trial.

The TiME trial was supported within the NIH Collaboratory by a cooperative agreement from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and received logistical and technical support from the NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center. Download a study snapshot about the TiME trial, and learn more about the NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects.

April 9, 2019: EMBED Awarded Continuation From Planning to Implementation Phase

The investigators of EMBED, an NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Project, have received approval to move from the planning phase to the implementation phase of their study. Congratulations to Dr. Ted Melnick, Dr. Gail D’Onofrio, and the EMBED study team for their excellent work!

“The opioid crisis is taking a devastating toll on Americans, their families, and their communities. The EMBED project leverages the urgency of our nation’s opioid crisis to bring together leaders in human-centered design, clinical informatics, data coordination, emergency medicine, and addiction medicine to provide an integrated, user-friendly solution to emergency clinicians caring for people with opioid addiction.”   —Dr. Edward Melnick, Co-PI of EMBED

EMBED (Pragmatic Trial of User-Centered Clinical Decision Support to Implement Emergency Department-Initiated Buprenorphine for Opioid Use Disorder) is designed to evaluate the effect of computerized clinical decision support on rates of emergency department-initiated buprenorphine/naloxone (BUP), which is a well-established outpatient treatment for people with opioid use disorder. BUP can only be prescribed by appropriately trained physicians. Although patients with opioid use disorder often seek medical care in emergency departments, the practice of initiating BUP in the emergency department is not common.

“Initiating buprenorphine in the emergency department has the potential to improve and save so many lives, but currently adoption rates are close to 0%. We believe that the EMBED intervention will be a crucial part of getting this evidence-based practice into routine emergency care.”   —Dr. Edward Melnick, Co-PI of EMBED

NIH Collaboratory Demonstration Projects begin with a 1-year, milestone-driven planning phase. Projects become eligible to move to the implementation phase after an administrative review of progress toward scientific milestones and feasibility requirements.

In the planning phase, the EMBED study team developed the clinician decision support tools intended to facilitate the management of people with untreated opioid use disorder who seek care in emergency departments. In the next phase, the team will implement the trial and test the effect of the clinical decision support tool compared to usual care on outcomes in patients with opioid use disorder who seek care in emergency departments.

EMBED was supported within the NIH Collaboratory by a cooperative agreement from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The study also received logistical and technical support from the NIH Collaboratory Coordinating Center through a cooperative agreement from the Office of Strategic Coordination within the Office of the NIH Director.