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Clinical trials get faster

On International Clinical Trials Day, James Gray, NHS DigiTrials Service Delivery Manager, talks about the new Feasibility Self-Service tool that drastically cuts the time it takes researchers to find out if there are enough potential participants for their clinical trial.

“In the time it takes to make a coffee.”

That was the challenge we set ourselves early in the creation of the NHS DigiTrials Feasibility Self-Service tool. And it was a big one: it meant giving users the ability to securely interrogate national datasets containing millions and millions of records in less than 5 minutes.

Map of England with different sized dots superimposed to indicate search results of where potential participants are located.

The new Feasibility Self-Service tool allows users to locate potential participants for their clinical trials.

One of the questions researchers have to ask themselves before they embark on a clinical trial: “Are there enough potential participants to make my trial feasible?” However big the impact of the potential treatment, however interesting the science behind it, research teams need to go back to the drawing board if the answer is no.

Another key factor that must be considered is if there are enough potential participants, where they are located?

The NHS DigiTrials Feasibility Service is the first in a suite of services designed to assist those who run clinical trials, and our mission was to make answering those early questions about whether a trial is going to work as  quickly and easily as we could.

We need to support researchers to conduct clinical trials in England. This will help them develop treatments to tackle some of our biggest healthcare challenges and will continue to grow a vibrant life sciences sector. This is also part of the government’s vision to increase innovation, infrastructure and skills in the country.

The tool enables approved access to verified patient data for the whole of England in one place.

How it works

Although NHS DigiTrials also operates a ‘Managed Feasibility Service’, where full support is provided for applicants working on a specific trial, the Feasibility Self-Service tool puts the control firmly in the hands of the users. With a 3- or 6- month subscription, users can log on themselves and run a query whenever they like – in the time it takes to make their perfect brew.

The tool enables direct, approved access to verified patient data for the whole of England in one place, accessible at the touch of a button.

It is currently supported by 3 national datasets collected by NHS England – 3 of the most requested through the DigiTrials applications process:

Using straightforward tick boxes and drop down menus, users can search over date ranges for potential participants using the following filters:

Further filters can be applied to display the outputs by integrated care board, NHS region or partial postcode. Outputs can also be displayed more graphically though a heat map.

You can expect to get the new results back almost instantaneously, rather than in ‘coffee time’.

Through the tool researchers access aggregate tables of data and no individual can be identified – if the search returns suitably low results, no exact numbers are shown. This is to protect the identity of patients and ensure confidentiality is maintained.

If there aren’t enough suitable participants in the results, simple – re-run the query, adjusting the ranges and filters as required in the hope of next time hitting the target. And keep going and keep going until you do. It all happens in a matter of minutes, and if, say, just one filter is altered, you can expect to get the new results back almost instantaneously, rather than in ‘coffee time’.

What's next?

The Feasibility Self-Service tool might contain 3 of the most requested NHS England datasets, but it won’t stop there. Already, we are working on adding further datasets for users to interrogate, such as cancer and index of multiple deprivation. We’re also currently testing the next release of the tool to output the counts via NHS trust and GP practice. These are 2 elements regularly suggested during extensive user research sessions.

In fact, it’s our goal that the functionality of the Feasibility Self-Service tool is, in the main, designed by the very same people who use it. Therefore, we are always keen to receive user feedback and add suggestions to our list of developments for future releases.

How to access it

The Feasibility Self-Service is a relatively new service, and is in public beta, but building demand in a steady and measured manner. NHS DigiTrials has to charge to recover its costs and a 3-month subscription to the tool will cost £2,036 (plus VAT), whereas 6 months is £2,469 (plus VAT). In accordance with our fair use policy, up to 3 users per subscription can run a maximum of 100 queries per month.

If you would like to hear more about our Feasibility Self service tool, register for our Feasibility Self-Service webinar on Wednesday 14 June from 11am to noon. You’ll see how the tool works, understand the features and benefits, and have an opportunity to ask the team questions.

Or, you can can email the team at [email protected] and enter 'NHS DigiTrials Feasibility Service' in the subject line. 

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Last edited: 11 September 2023 4:30 pm