What Are Virtual Clinical Trials?

Medically reviewed by Dr. Chuck Yong Kong, MBBS | Written by HealthMatch staff

COVID-19 has permanently altered the pharmaceutical landscape and nowhere is this more evident than in the clinical trials space. As the world locked down and vaccine research ramped up, other trials came to a stop as sponsors looked online for digital solutions to support existing research and safeguard future studies through virtual trials.

Virtual clinical trials are digitally empowered clinical trial processes. A remote clinical trial is a relatively new model; thus, it is still an underused clinical research method.

How do virtual clinical trials work?

Virtual trials bring the clinical trial experience to the patient's home using a web-based platform that virtually coordinates all the necessary requirements. Patients can set their schedules for procedures, reducing the burden of traveling to a clinical site and spending hours there. Direct-to-patient trials mainly work well for rare diseases and other serious illnesses where patients are homebound.

All materials needed for a patient visit, such as pharmaceutical substances and equipment, are sent to the patient's home. At the same time, study physicians and pharmacists provide support via videoconferencing. Mobile health applications and telehealth technologies are used to capture medical information from patients and in clinical trials to transmit remote real-time data directly to the primary study site.

What are the benefits of virtual clinical trials?

As technology advances and becomes more integrated into the clinical development industry, there's increasing interest in trials that don't require trial sites. These sites are the actual locations where drugs, medical devices, and other therapies are tested on human beings. Planned trials are when the patient gathers all their data electronically. Planned trials have been shown to result in:

Improved patient engagement

Virtual trials are appealing due to the reduced time and cost of traveling to trial locations. They are more comfortable, convenient, and have greater access to treatment, especially for those with mobility issues. Virtual trials allow patients to volunteer from home, ensuring willing participation. Plus, more physicians and trial staff have access to more patients.

Less burden on patients

Planning visits to trial sites can be expensive, stressful, and may feel a bit confined. Eliminating the need to go to sites ensures that patients do not have to bear the burden and hassle of traveling to the trials. In addition, patients do not have to keep track of any symptoms they might have experienced as this is completed around the clock, and adverse events are analyzed and treated as quickly as possible.

More robust data collection

Tracking technology has evolved and allows life sciences companies to remotely collect an incredible amount of data – more than can be collected in a series of office visits. Virtual trials are expected to develop into new and powerful means of collecting data. The study benefits data collection by effectively and efficiently meeting timelines with better safety reviews for new endpoints and measures.

Quick patient enrollment

Screening and recruitment through online social media channels enable sponsors to fill trials much faster than conventional trials. Virtual trials make it much easier for patients to participate and are open to a larger pool of participants.

What are the challenges of virtual clinical trials?

Despite the benefits, virtual clinical trials can also have downsides, which include:

•    Operational challenges

Study protocols requiring extensive procedures like biopsies and high imaging systems capital equipment such as MRIs cannot be performed as virtual trials, as the protocols require provider engagement.

•    Patient concerns

The risk of sharing sensitive health information of the patient over the Internet causes patient privacy concerns. In the case of continuous monitoring, a few patients may not be comfortable using wearables or other devices all day.

•    Safety concerns

Trials conducted in an unsterile environment could lead to discrepancies and ailments compared to the medical sites. Lower medical literacy and knowledge about gadgets and medical supplies may lead to an aberration in the results. 

Virtual clinical trials outlook

According to a market report¹, the global virtual clinical trials market size is expected to reach USD 11.5 billion by 2028 and expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5.7% from 2021 to 2028. The need for patient diversity combined with enhanced data collection in clinical trials is boosting virtual/decentralized clinical trials’ (DCTs) market growth.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the clinical trials industry had no choice but to adapt to maintain any momentum in clinical development activities. Despite such a significant change, clinical trials are open to so many more patients and improved data collection.

The lowdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down population movement worldwide, preventing many clinical trial patients from attending trial sites. The virtual clinical trials market is now driven by the growing digitization in the healthcare sector, growth in R&D activities, and telehealth adoption.

Advancements in technology, such as the launch of web-based clinical trials, collaborations between clinical research companies, biotechnology companies, and pharmaceuticals, and government support initiatives are expected to boost the market.

Clinical trials allow you to access and benefit from medications and treatments not yet available – at no cost to you. Learn more about clinical trials and how we can help find the proper trial for you.

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