Protocol trumps practice. This principle seems clear enough, but complying with it is not always as straight-forward as it sounds. Years of practicing medicine has reinforced the way a physician responds to medical situations. But do these responses run counter to the investigational plan? Can a site’s commitment to standard of care affect its ability to meet enrollment targets?

There’s a lot to consider.

What’s Your Standard of Care?  When deciding whether or not to conduct a particular study, a PI needs to verify that the protocol is aligned with practice norms. For example, an early phase trial might exclude a medication that is part of a practice’s routine therapy. Is the study placebo-controlled? Does it feature a specific comparator drug? Will it include a washout period? Any of these elements could present enrollment challenges or preclude a site from accepting a study at all. Responsible sites want to make thoughtful decisions about study suitability; they want to provide realistic enrollment estimates. Sponsors want this too, and can help sites do both these things by providing them a sufficient level of detail about protocol procedures as early as possible.

The Road to Deviations is Often Paved with Good Intentions  Therapeutic misconception – a well-documented phenomenon in clinical research – occurs when a study participant “fails to appreciate the distinction between the imperatives of clinical research and of ordinary treatment.”1 Study participants are not alone in this. Researchers blur the distinction themselves when they conduct procedures that are consistent with clinical care but deviate from the protocol. This may be particularly true for PIs who recruit participants from their own practices. An endocrinologist might ordinarily reduce dosage for a particularly diminutive patient. A pulmonologist would often skip a scheduled chest x-ray she felt wasn’t needed to avoid exposing her patient to unnecessary radiation. An orthopedic surgeon may decide his patient needs more recovery time than usual before attempting her first walk. In a clinical care setting, these decisions are sound, made in an individual patient’s best interest. In a clinical trial, if they differ from the investigational plan and haven’t been approved by the Sponsor, they’re protocol deviations.2

It May Be Par for the Course, but It’s Still an AE  Specialists who have experience treating particular conditions are also familiar with the complications that ordinarily accompany them. A nephrologist, for instance, knows that a patient with end-stage renal disease frequently experiences bloat from a buildup of fluid between dialysis sessions. Though useful for a doctor treating patients, this knowledge can actually work against a doctor running a trial. How? A PI may fail to report a stomach ache as an AE because it’s so typical, so expected. “Bloat is common for renal patients. If I recorded every GI incident, I’d be recording AEs all day.” At its surface, this PI’s argument sounds reasonable, but what if the study drug itself is contributing to the participant’s discomfort? In order to assess the drug’s gastrointestinal effect, the PI must document the frequency and severity of all GI events.

Lab values that are either above or below normal range are also prime candidates for AE underreporting. “Of course the participant’s liver enzyme is high – we’re testing a cholesterol drug.”

The Importance of Study Oversight  Any GCP course worth its registration fee will discuss the distinction between standard of care and the study protocol. In practice, the distinction is not always as obvious as training sessions might suggest. This is where well-trained CRAs come in. As site monitors, CRAs are in a position to catch deviations that result from lapses into standard of care. Reading through progress notes, a monitor can ensure that any untoward medical event has been reported as an Adverse Event. They can verify that procedures conducted by the PI and site staff are compliant with the protocol. Then, by reviewing which types of data must be collected and emphasizing the importance of following certain protocol procedures, monitors can take the opportunity to re-educate study personnel and help them avoid these common pitfalls.

1 Lidz CW, Appelbaum PS (2002) The therapeutic misconception: problems and solutions. Med Care 40: V55-V63.
2 Andrew Snyder of the HealthEast Care System wrote a thoughtful piece describing the compatibilities that do exist between clinical care and clinical research. His arguments provide a useful counterpoint to the issues we’re raising here. https://firstclinical.com/journal/2017/1707_Research_vs_Care.pdf

A version of this article originally appeared in InSite, the Journal of the Society for Clinical Research Sites.

About the Authors

Laurie Meehan is the Social Media Manager for Polaris Compliance Consultants, Inc. She writes the company blog and eNewsletter and manages the company website and social media accounts. Prior to joining Polaris in 2008, Ms. Meehan worked at a major telecommunication R&D company and taught math and computer science at local university.

Lauren Kelley is the Associate Director of GCP Compliance for Polaris Compliance Consultants, Inc. She has worked for over 35 years in the pharmaceutical industry and specializes in GCP auditing. Ms. Kelley also serves as an instructor for the Western Institutional Review Board and the Drug Information Association, and is a frequent speaker at SoCRA and other professional meetings.