Transforming Trials 2030 with Sally Okun
The last two years have been driving many discussions of the need for change in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in the clinical trial arena. Discussions have not always led to actions, however. Hi, I’m Tom Rhoads, CEO of Spencer Health Solutions. As we look towards 2022, I believe we will record this as a year of make it so. The time for moving on from debate is here, as patients are demanding action and forward momentum. On today’s episode of People Always, Patients Sometimes, our host Janet Kennedy has a conversation with the new executive director of the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, Sally Okun. Sally brings a unique and essential perspective to CTTI, as a former nurse and VP of Patients Like Me. They have a detailed discussion of the Transforming Trials 2030 initiative, one that Spencer Health Solutions is 100% behind. I hope you enjoy this episode of People Always, Patients Sometimes.
Janet Kennedy: (00:59)
It’s very exciting for me to have today’s guest. Sally Okun is now the executive director of the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative. The last time I spoke with her was on the Get Social Health podcast, where she was the vice president of Patients Like Me. So interesting that we’re going to have another conversation, but in a totally different role, and yet, still very patient centric. So please join me in welcoming Sally Okun to the People Always, Patients Sometimes podcast. Sally, I’m so glad to have you here. I know it’s been very, very odd over the past few years in working and collaborating and life transitions, but we had an opportunity to talk to your predecessor, Pamela Tenaerts, who was the executive director of the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative. We spoke to her pre-COVID. So now we’re in the middle and maybe hopefully heading towards the end. And there are a lot of exciting things happening at CTTI. So welcome to the podcast, and I’d love to hear a little bit about how you ended up joining CTTI.
Sally Okun: (02:09)
Janet, it’s so nice to be here, and I really appreciate the opportunity to talk more about the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, and certainly the shoes that Pam left are large, and I’m still trying to find ways of filling them, and I think that’s gonna take some time. How did I get to my current role? Well, interestingly enough, I had left Patients Like Me in 2020 and I was working on a variety of interesting projects at the time across the health spectrum. You know, I was consulting on a variety of different things and also enjoying some newfound freedom of semi-retirement, which was an interesting experience for the first time in my career. You know, by about mid 2021, maybe in light of the time that we were all spending at home as opposed to spending out enjoying each other’s company socially or professionally, I started thinking more and more about the next chapter of my professional career.
Sally Okun: (02:57)
So it wasn’t long after that, that I was approached about the position of executive director at CTTI. And frankly, initially I didn’t see the fit for me. You know, I’ve not spent my career in clinical trial work. I’ve spent a lot of my career in research and clinical research with patients and others, but hadn’t really focused specifically on clinical trials and the clinical trial enterprise. So at first I really wasn’t exactly sure it would be a good fit for me. However, after talking with some trusted colleagues and others, including the chairs of CTTI’s executive committee, I was truly intrigued by the organization’s impressive portfolio of work. I really hadn’t been aware of just how much they have done over the last 15 years, 14 years, in terms of contributing to the improvement overall of the clinical trial experience, not just for participants, but for investigators as well as sponsors and others.
Sally Okun: (03:48)
So, you know, I then looked a little more closely at the transforming trials vision, and I thought, you know what, here’s an organization that is setting goals as a priority to be seeing clinical trials as patient centric and easily accessible as its number one pillar. And I thought, well, you know what, I think maybe this fit might be just right. So I spent a bit more time thinking about it and then made the leap in October of just a couple months ago – just hit my two month anniversary.
Janet Kennedy: (04:13)
You mentioned something just now about the Transforming Trials 2030 program. What is that?
Sally Okun: (04:20)
Well, you know, a couple of years ago, again, under Pam’s leadership, they discussed the need to set some milestones to really stop sort of talking about improving clinical trials, but actually putting some stakes in the ground or pillars up to suggest that we need to have a goal for that transformation; that we have to have things that we’re working towards as a community in order to be able to achieve a better experience for everyone involved in clinical trials.
Sally Okun: (04:49)
So what came out of that initial discussion was a set of five pillars that actually articulate quite specifically what we believe clinical trials should be like by 2030. And each one of them has a host of different objectives beneath the goal, that actually really describe how we might ultimately get to the point where we can say, “Yes, indeed, we have clinical trials that are now patient centered and easily accessible,” for example, for the first pillar. But each one of them is complex. Each one of them requires a lot of understanding of what needs to get unpacked to better get at the kinds of things that need to get changed. So we are in the process right now of beginning a strategic plan for doing just that: taking each of the pillars and starting to think about how will we know that we’ve achieved success on this pillar? What will be the metrics we need to start thinking about for those.
Janet Kennedy: (05:42)
Alright. So let’s do some metrics here. What are the other four pillars?
Sally Okun: (05:46)
Number one, as I said, is that clinical trials will be patient centered and easily accessible. And if we don’t reach that, then some of the others are almost irrelevant. So that is actually the place to begin. But then the second one is that they’re fully integrated into health processes. So that gives us an opportunity to really begin thinking about the continuously learning health system, where we embed within the care environment, the opportunity to research and learn, and then put that learning back into the care environment again, so that we have a full circle loop. The third one is that they are designed with a quality approach, and CTTI has done an incredible amount of work on something called quality by design.
Sally Okun: (06:27)
It has a whole set of recommendations around how to determine how the quality of your trial based on a variety of different things – whether it’s your recruitment numbers or other aspects of what the trial efficiency looks like. The fourth one is that clinical trials take full advantage; they maximally leverage all available clinical and nonclinical data, including data that’s collected now with digital technologies to ensure that we max – minimize – the collection burden of getting data and actually improve the opportunity to make data more meaningful and impactful as part of the trial experience. And then lastly, although not least, is that clinical trials contribute knowledge to how to prevent diagnosis and treat disease. And that becomes something that’s an objective around improving population health and the health of our people.
Janet Kennedy: (07:12)
Okay. Those are very large topics, very large goals. Who is the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative? Who’s going to do this work?
Sally Okun: (07:23)
We are a group of people who have come together within the organization that includes project managers who oversee our projects, and then strategic and engagement and communications team that oversees all of our communications with our steering committee members in our member organizations. So to give you an idea of what that structure looks like: we have a steering committee that includes about 80 organizations who are actually members of CTTI, Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, and they commit to have a person assigned as a steering committee representative. So as we begin to think about tackling a new topic or a new initiative, we go to the steering committee and we make available to them the opportunity to join the project team. That project team then starts to create the infrastructure for accomplishing that project, which can include, first of all, the project plan and setting the aims and the objectives.
Sally Okun: (08:17)
In many ways, it’s creating a research study for the topic under consideration with that. Then they set out to consider what’s the literature already say? Who are the expert people we need to be speaking to? So there’s a lot of qualitative interviewing that goes on as part of the social science team from the Duke Clinical Research Institute; that is a connection for our team to be able to work with. And then the findings from those interviews begin to shape the recommendations that will come out about a particular topic area. For example, thinking about trials in healthcare setting; what do we need to know about the various barriers for those and the opportunities for those as well as the current landscape within which the clinical experience might or might not include participation in research activities? So there’s an entire project management approach that is put on any topic we tackle.
Sally Okun: (09:08)
The problem with it; it’s an incredible opportunity for us to be able to map out these topics and really think about the issues as a group, but it’s a labor intensive and time consuming. It can take up to two years to complete some of our projects because they are so intense in terms of diving deep into the problem and trying to come up with resources and tools to address it. So where we are faced today is thinking about how will transformed trials by 2030 if we continue to take this much time to get through our project? Which is why we’re now starting to focus quite specifically on each of the pillars, and in many ways, making a project around that pillar. So if we take the first one, for example, and we say trials will be patient centered and easily accessible. The first question I have is how will we know that?
Sally Okun: (09:55)
So we’re starting to look at ways of being able to measure whether clinical trials today are, or are not patient centered. And that can be evidenced by whether or not patients were involved in the design of the trial, which is work we’ve already done in some other projects that we’ve done. Also, how is the enrollment handled? Did it include a diverse population? A variety of different ways of able to measure patient centricity around a trial. But you’re right, each one of these has a lot embedded in it and our strategic approach to it right now is taking each one. I’ve assigned a project manager to every pillar. And we are now just beginning the process of setting a goal for the metrics for each one, and then identifying where we will go next in terms of what resources we know exist already within CTTI that we can map to it, and then what resources may exist in related efforts, whether it’s transCelerate or the Multi-Regional Clinical Trials Initiative, others that are related efforts and aligned with our work, and starting to see where their resources could help to get us closer to realizing that particular vision or that pillar.
Janet Kennedy: (10:59)
Now, I know your members represent nonprofit organizations, for profit organizations; I think you even have some patient volunteers who are part of your program. But where does the funding come from to make these things happen?
Sally Okun: (11:12)
Well, you know, we are a public/private partnership with the FDA. We have been very fortunate to have an excellent relationship with the FDA over the last number of years, their interest in having us be available to tackle some of the more problematic issues that they are not in a position to do on their own. So the funding comes through a grant that supports that public/private partnership. Also our members, depending on the type of organization or company that they are, pay a membership fee to participate. And so that helps to offset some of the costs as well for maintaining our team and the other resources that we put to bear to get the work done on a regular basis.
Janet Kennedy: (11:50)
And then how does it actually get done? So if you come up with these guidelines or these recommendations, is there a commitment on the part of these for-profit organizations that they’ll actually start to modify, or is the science and the evidence so evident that it makes no sense not to implement these changes?
Sally Okun: (12:10)
Yeah, that’s a good question. It would be nice if everything seemed that intuitive. That yes, indeed, this is something we ought to be doing because it’s just the right thing to do, right? And many of our recommendations would fall into that category. And I think many of our organizations commit to ensuring that they make attempts to incorporate those recommendations into the work that they’re doing. Right now, we do have a method of identifying as part of the project itself. Towards the latter part of it, opportunities for adoption of the recommendation. So what that project team will think about is, so now what? How will we see these things come to life in the real world? So opportunities for providing some insights into how they might be best adopted are offered as part of the overall project deliverable at the end of the day. Now at the same time, we don’t have an accountability measure to be able to say, “Yes, we believe these recommendations should be incorporated into the clinical trial on this particular topic area, and we expect that you will deliver on that.”
Sally Okun: (13:09)
So that is, I think, a professional courtesy that we afford to our members to say, “We appreciate that you committed a lot of time to helping us get to the point where we have these recommendations; now what we’d like to ask of you is to start sharing your experiences of using these recommendations and resources.” So we actually – just this past year created the Building Better Trials case study exchange. And it’s a portal where our members and non-members actually can contribute their experiences of using CTTI tools and resources for a particular purpose within their organization to advance or improve the efficiency and quality of clinical trial experiences. And those have been great. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to showcase how members and even non-members, as I said, use the CTTI resources in a way that actually do have an impact. And it’s also a place where, from my perspective, most importantly, we can have continuous and shared learning. So what one group might have learned as a result of incorporating the recommendations for a single IRB, for example – that can be brought forth for others who are now facing the need to do that, the kinds of challenges and other ways that the organization actually met the recommendations that were set forth.
Janet Kennedy: (14:23)
And for those listening, if you visit the website and go to this podcast episode, I’ll make sure that there is a link there. Tell me a little bit about the patient’s role; obviously you come in with a very unique background and a very wrong patient-centric experience and support system set up. So how are patients involved? Because let’s face it, they don’t have the kind of money it would take to join an organization. They may not even have the time to commit to some of the work that’s being done here. But how do you incorporate the patient voice into the work of CTTI?
Sally Okun: (14:55)
Well, it is an incredibly important voice and we pay a lot of attention to ensuring that we have mechanisms to get that. We actually have three members of the steering committee who are patient representatives and they come into the role with that responsibility. So they are – similar to being an organization – they have been identified through an application process as people who are willing and interested in contributing in a very substantive way to our understanding of what it means to be a patient in the context of clinical trials. So there’s three of them on our steering committee itself, and one of them is actually a caregiver and the other two are patients, one living with breast cancer and the other with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. And so the opportunity for them to be a part of the steering committee team, when a project comes up is wide open.
Sally Okun: (15:44)
So we’re always looking for ways of having them be involved. Now at the same time, we have many patient organizations that are members. You’re so right; these organizations and patients individually don’t have the resources to be able to pay a membership fee that would be sort of out of their range. Our membership fees vary on a sliding scale depending on the organizational type and the revenue that those organizations have. So a patient organization would – I think the highest amount is a $500 membership fee. And I think, you know, obviously, thinking about other organizations that may even be a challenge for, we would certainly work with them and talk with them about how we could make a membership opportunity come to fruition. So the other thing that we do is we do have a relationship with the FDA in terms of being able to help them support their patient engagement collaborative.
Sally Okun: (16:31)
Now, this is a group of sixteen individuals who again, apply to be a part of the patient collaborative, and we actually help support that group. And it’s an opportunity for us also to work more closely with FDA on how they can have access to patients in a way that helps them better understand the patient experience. So I think we try really hard to ensure that all of our projects have a patient representative on them, whether it’s a patient individual or a patient group, or potentially having some relationship back to the patient engagement collaborative at FDA itself.
Janet Kennedy: (17:03)
I think the work you’re doing is so exciting and so important. I worry a little bit that your projects are huge, and you do have, you know, your goal of transforming trials by 2030. However, you know, in order to get there, you gotta take a few steps. So will you be releasing work along the way?
Sally Okun: (17:24)
You know, as I said, one of the things that I did right from the very first day I arrived was to start talking with the team about measurement and data. As you know, coming out of Patients Like Me, one of the things that was a hallmark of our work with data, and we just felt like we needed to be data driven in order to be able to answer important questions for patients. It’s no different here. It’s very much the same. In order to be able to achieve these lofty goals of this transforming trials vision, we have to know where we’re at now. What’s the baseline data we know about the percentage of trials that are currently patient-centric? I really have no idea. We have to start thinking about ways of being able to find metrics that will tell us some of that. What’s the evidence of a trial being patient-centric?
Sally Okun: (18:04)
And there are tools out there that we will be starting to inventory and start to determine whether or not these will be ones that we’ll put into the ways that we think about this. The short answer to your question is my objective with taking each pillar and intentionally unpacking it, is to better understand where do we need to begin? How will we know that we’re making some progress? And that will be metrics and data. And then what are the resources that we are gonna need to start thinking about beyond just adoption? So it’s not simply gonna be enough to say, “Here’s the recommendations we’re making about patient-centric trials for you to be able to, you know, have available to you.” We’d like very much to start thinking about the ways of being able to have a bit of a scorecard on that. How do we know we’ve made a difference?
Sally Okun: (18:49)
How do we know that some of the work and the learnings that we’ve been generating are actually going to translate into something that happens at the clinical trial level itself? And those are still things in development, but they are very important, to me personally, as part of my own work, but also for me as the executive director of the organization today to say, “Let’s start measuring how well we’re doing on every one of these,” and better understand at what point we believe we’ve actually shifted the needle enough to be able to say, “We’re reaching closer to that goal.” Now, will we get there by 2030 on every one of them? You know what, I’m gonna remain optimistic. But I also recognize that there’s so much that can happen between now and then that could interrupt our progress. And just taking into example, the COVID pandemic over the last year and a half, that stopped so many other kinds of research because we had to focus on that.
Sally Okun: (19:40)
Our hope is that in some of the things that we’ve taken away and learned from that, as we look at each of these pillars, we wanna be able to say, will this stand up during a time of public emergency. Also are the things that we’re coming up with applicable beyond the US. That’s another important aspect that we have to start thinking about; clinical trials take place everywhere. And in fact, more people are recruited outside of the US than they are in the US. So we have to be thinking about that quite intentionally. And then lastly, the one area that we have not worked specifically in integrating into our prior projects is how can technology itself enable the success on this particular pillar? What are the opportunities that are available today and even tomorrow or two years from now that weren’t available previously, that we can start to take advantage of that, help us move that goal closer to achieving it?
Janet Kennedy: (20:30)
Well, you come in at an interesting time where you probably were interviewing during the process of all the stopping and starting and having to rethink about how clinical trials were going to go ahead in the midst of the pandemic. And now you’ve started when, you know, we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and things have managed to pick up, and a lot of companies were able to pivot and use digital technology to move some clinical trials forward. However, I’m curious to know, as you come in and you were getting feedback from your steering committees, did you hear them say that this pandemic has accelerated our vision for decentralized clinical trials for the use of digital health technology?
Sally Okun: (21:14)
Yes. And I may not have been hearing that because I wasn’t here at the time, but definitely the projects that we had that as a result of some of the work being done through COVID and some webinars that we ran with some of our esteem colleagues – including Rob Califf and Harlan Krumholz, and Deb Estrin – just the idea that we have learned a lot as a result of the COVID experience, and we do need to ensure that what we’ve learned and those things that actually have benefited the clinical trial experience, not only for participants, but potentially for investigators as well, and outcomes more coming more quickly, that we have to ensure that these are not compromised as we move forward. That we don’t fall back simply because it’s a little easier to fall back and then it might be to fall forward. And that we take advantage of the things that we’ve learned, especially that technology is now a new enabler for improving the efficiency and quality of clinical trials. When used appropriately, when used in the right context, and when used with tools that actually have the ability to be used for regulatory decision making. You know, we have to ensure that we’re not just simply falling back onto technology for technology’s sake. We have to ensure that we’re using the kinds of tools that actually can be helpful and useful for regulatory decision making.
Janet Kennedy: (22:30)
Tell me a little bit about incorporating patient voice through patient reported outcomes and real world evidence. Is that something that is now you would almost consider mandated as part of a clinical trial?
Sally Okun: (22:42)
Not so sure we’re at mandated yet, but I think we can recognize just how important and valuable real world data is to understanding the real world experiences of real people, right? And yet I think we still have a fair amount of work yet to do on translating that – all of those different types, disparate types of data – into the totality of evidence, within which real world evidence will be one piece of it, that then contributes to a regulator’s understanding of the sponsors data. So I think, yes, I think real world data and real world evidence have definitely achieved the validity of being important as part of the clinical trial and clinical research experience. And we’re seeing, increasingly, opportunities where that’s now starting to become more important to regulators. For example, you know, FDA is continuing to meet its mandate from the 21st Century Cures Act, where it was required to issue guidance on the use of real world data and real world evidence for regulatory decision making.
Sally Okun: (23:42)
So they now have I think issued, I wanna say four of the four, but the last one or two are still in draft and will have no final rule yet. But those are important considerations; to think that the regulator themselves has now put forth what they feel will be required for the use of real world data and real world evidence for their ability to make good decisions. Additionally, EMA just recently stated a vision that enabling the use of real world evidence and establishing its value for regulatory decision making is going to be required in Europe by 2025. So these, you know, different entities are putting a stake in the ground and they’re saying okay, similar to what we’re doing with our vision, right? The idea is that we need to ensure that all the data that could contribute to our understanding of what it takes to have a medicine or device developed so that it can be used to improve outcomes for people needs to come to bear.
Sally Okun: (24:37)
And we can’t simply just look at it and say, “It’s too complicated, or it’s too difficult to translate that data into something that’s understood by the regulators.” We have to figure that out. And I think there’s going to be a lot of work in the coming year or two on that very topic. You know, there’s a lot of work being done. For example, Duke Margolis has had a point of care working group now for some time that I’ve actually enjoyed being a part of, and they’re aligned very much with our work being done in trials and healthcare settings. So you can see those two things are both totally aligned and related. We’re working at it from a different perspective. Duke Margolis, a little more from the policy side and CTTI, a little more from sort of the actual operational side, and bringing those groups together, some of which actually – some of our senior committee members sit on the Duke Margolis’s working group too. So there’s definitely starting to see this overlap of the attention paid to the value and the importance of this data. So I don’t think it’ll be long before it becomes something that’s just a part of clinical trial experiences. But I think we still have a little ways to go before we actually see it integrated into every clinical trial.
Janet Kennedy: (25:41)
Now before we started recording, we talked a Little bit about where and when we’ll be able to interact with CTTI in public, and it sounds like you’re shooting for a live meeting about a year from now?
Sally Okun: (25:53)
The meeting we were talking about in fact was our steering committee meeting. So we have two meetings a year where we gather our executive committee and our steering committee for two days of meetings. One will be in March, which we’re going to be doing virtually. And the other will be in September. In the meantime, throughout the course of the year, we actually do a number of webinars and other events that actually are open to the public to learn about some of the work we’re doing. And we will definitely continue to do those. Those right now are quarterly, but we might likely start to increase those depending on how the work is going on. Each of the pillars for the transforming trials vision. But the September meeting will be the first time our steering committee and executive committee see each other in person since the pandemic. So we’re very excited to shoot towards that. And obviously we’ll be flexible and adaptable as needed, but right now we’ve made that commitment that we will see each other in person in the fall.
Janet Kennedy: (26:44)
That is exciting. And I hope we get to meet in person sometime in 2022. The conference season looks like it’s kicking back in with protocols in place, but that we’re gonna be face to face more than we have been in the last two years. So hopefully I will get a chance to run across you at one of the conferences coming up in the spring.
Sally Okun: (27:05)
I would enjoy that very much, Janet. Yes, I’ve actually just recently had my first foray out into the professional traveling again. And that was a quick trip to Boston and followed by a quick one to D.C. Both of which felt very odd, but also at the same time felt very good. And it was wonderful to see friends and colleagues that I just haven’t seen in way too long.
Janet Kennedy: (27:26)
It is surprising what good friendships are developed in the professional environment. We talked a lot about family and COVID’S impact on family units. But for many of us, our colleagues are also just as much our family members, and not being around these people who stimulate our minds and get us really interested in new ideas; it really is very draining and disappointing not to be near some of these amazing people.
Sally Okun: (27:55)
That’s such a good point. I mean, I know I thrive on just having conversations with people face to face and hearing their ideas about what they’re doing or giving me some feedback on a presentation I just did. You know, I just always loved the after experience of being a part of a panel or part of a, you know, presentation that was being held at a conference, and just the feedback you would get from people on the things that you talked about is, was just – really provided me with professional learning that I couldn’t get anywhere else, frankly.
Janet Kennedy: (28:22)
Absolutely. Alright, well, hopefully a cup of coffee in real life is going to be on our agenda sometime in 2022. Well, Sally Okun, executive director for the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, thank you so very much for joining me on the People Always, Patients Sometimes podcast.
Sally Okun: (28:40)
Janet, it has been my true pleasure to connect with you again, and I look forward to many times of having the opportunity to see you and spend some time again. Thank you so much. And thank you for the highlight for the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative and our work. We really appreciate it.
Janet Kennedy: (28:55)
Janet M. Kennedy is a healthcare marketing and social media professional. Janet is the Senior Digital Brand Manager for Spencer Health Solutions and hosts multiple podcasts including Get Social Health and People Always, Patients Sometimes. She is a member of the External Advisory Board of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network.