As lead investigator or sub-investigator on numerous clinical trials at the University of Colorado Cancer Center — many of them investigating new treatments for head and neck cancer — Jessica McDermott, MD, has been instrumental in improving access to cancer clinical trials for patients from medically underserved communities.
McDermott will now bring her expertise in this area to her new role at the CU Cancer Center — deputy associate director for diversity and inclusion in clinical research. The newly created position is responsible for monitoring clinical trial accrual and initiating research to identify and understand barriers to accrual and creating interventions to address them.
“Having more access to clinical trials benefits everyone,” says McDermott, assistant professor of medical oncology at the CU School of Medicine. “There is data that suggests that patients who have access to trials at academic centers do better in general. Some of that is because they have more hands on them — when you're involved in a trial, you have more follow-up — and part of it is because they are getting the latest treatments. It also provides benefit for us, as researchers, because we have more access to more patients to enroll in these trials and move science forward.”
Breaking down barriers
In her roles at the CU Cancer Center and the nearby Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, McDermott has seen firsthand some of the barriers to participating in clinical trials, including issues around proximity, transportation, language barriers, and health insurance.
“I’ve been working with the Colorado Cancer Coalition, which has a plan to increase access not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but also for LGBTQ and rural populations,” she says. “We are working with other cancer centers and other primary care providers to get the word out to help with things like getting patients back and forth to trials and how we can work with pharmaceutical companies and some of the other trial runners to decrease the burden of the trial. For instance, not requiring multiple visits a week if someone is coming from hours and hours away.”
Clinical trials have historically been underrepresented in terms of race and ethnicity, McDermott says, so it’s also important to enroll different populations to study the effects of medications in different types of patients, as well as quality-of-life outcomes that may be affected by socioeconomic status and other factors.
“We wouldn't be doing our job as a university cancer center if we weren’t truly representing the state,” she says. “We looked at every single kind of tumor group and study group at the CU Cancer Center and who they are currently enrolling. We also looked at who is walking through our door, because we can only put people on trials who are actually coming to our cancer center.”
The CU Cancer Center’s current goal is to have clinical trial participation match the ethnic makeup of its total patient population; eventually McDermott hopes trial participation will match the demographics of Colorado’s overall population.
“We're trying to work more broadly with patients throughout the state and providers throughout the state, just getting information out there about what clinical trials are what they entail,” she says. “And we are looking at how we better share with non-CU providers about what trials they have open and what trials we have open, so we can make sure we're sending each other patients as appropriate.”
Part of a larger effort
In her new role, McDermott is also tasked with identifying new directions, strategies, and partnerships in which the center should invest in to ensure that clinical trial accrual to cancer clinical trials reflects or exceeds the state cancer demographics. She will work closely with senior leaders and administration in the development and implementation of policies across cancer clinical research, looking to align with a larger campuswide vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
“We're going to keep on finding problems, and I'm the person that trial leaders can come to for help work those out,” she says. “I probably have a meeting every week with a different group of people that is trying to work on this. Having this new role puts a bigger emphasis on what I'm doing and a gives a more directed focus to all of these different endeavors that we've been doing for a while.”