Clinical researchers stuck with 1980s technology: expert

OTTAWA — Outdated IT equipment in many Canadian hospitals is hampering the adoption of electronic research tools that could otherwise save hundreds of millions in annual R&D costs, Ottawa IT experts said Wednesday.

Software capable of solving key clinical research problems may not be supported

by hospital operating systems, some of which are almost 10 years old, said Jonathan Barker, director of IT strategy for the Chalmers Research Group at the CHEO Research Institute.

Dr. David Barnes, managing partner of Bio TheraGene Clinical Research Consultants in Ottawa, added there are physicians at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) “”trying to use 1980s computer technology for… clinical research and data capture.””

“”And that’s a limiting aspect when you’re trying to do work that’s on the cutting edge,”” he said.

In working with 55 health centres across Canada, Barker has found roughly 55 per cent of the hospital computers he deals with are using Windows 95, which makes for “”an extremely limiting (clinical research) environment.””

These limits are defined by hospital computers often “”so old they don’t have mass co-processors,”” said Barker prior to a “”IT and Healthcare”” presentation Wednesday on clinical research at CHEO. “”This means a lot of the modern compression technologies that you use to deliver Web-based clinical data capture just won’t work. Over half the machines will cause more problems than they’ll solve.””

Meanwhile, plugging clinical data into a handheld device, as a Palm Pilot, and instantly sending it to a central database saves insurmountable amounts of time, said Barker.

It’s a key point since time is money, said Barnes. The lag time of getting a drug to market is roughly 10 years, and can be a very risky proposition for those who fund the trials, he said. Accordingly, researchers involved in drug development are constantly working against the clock. A few months of extra research time could literally mean “”millions and millions of dollars,”” he said, adding some studies show the adoption of electronic data capture for clinical trials indicates time savings of three months.

In total, this adoption could possibly shave years off the commercialization process and significantly reduce the time it takes to make new treatments available to patients, he added.

Software such as the Chalmers Research Group’s SRS tool can also save researchers precious time, said Barker. Users with a specific research question can query the Web-based tool, which instantly determines whether facets of the user’s research have already been done in other parts of the world. Not only can users avoid duplicity, they can integrate results from past trials into their own research, he explained.

Budgetary constraints are among the main reasons why hospital administrators do not upgrade their operating systems to suit the complexity of data-capture software, said Barnes. But it also has to do with “”willingness, politics and the level of familiarity decision-makers have with clinical care delivery and clinical research.””

“”Hospital administrators aren’t completely conversant in these areas and therefore cannot fully appreciate the benefits that can be gained by moving more towards efficient IT infrastructure,”” he said.

Barnes emphasized that Canada is ahead of most countries when it comes to the level of IT use in hospitals, but the level of IT sophistication between Canadian hospitals varies dramatically.

The federal government recently signaled that one of its top priorities is to find $2 billion in additional health-care payments to the provinces.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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