Background: Improving efficiencies in clinical research is crucial to translation of findings into practice and delivery of effective, patient-centered health care. This paper describes a project that monitored pragmatic clinical trials by working with investigators to track achievement of early phase milestones. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pragmatic Trials Collaborative Project supported scientifically diverse, low-cost, randomized, controlled, pragmatic clinical intervention trials. Funds were available through a cooperative agreement award mechanism, with the initial phase supporting trial planning and the subsequent 4-year awards funding trial implementation. A coordinating center provided evaluation and administrative support, which included capturing progress toward achieving milestones.
Methods: Six funded trials participated in monthly calls throughout the first year to identify and demonstrate metrics and deliverables for each milestone in the Notice of Grant Award. Interviews were conducted with investigators, trial team members, and NIH program officers/project scientists to discuss their perceptions of the impact and value of the management strategy.
Results: Five of six trials transitioned to the implementation phase with milestones ranging from 6 to 15 and quantifiable metrics ranging from 15 to 33, for a total of 121 deliverables. One third of the metrics (42, 35%) were trial-specific. Trial teams reported that the oversight was onerous but complemented their management strategies; program officers/project scientists found that documentation submitted for review was sufficient to assess trial feasibility; and investigators reported advantages to the phased award mechanism, such as leverage to secure commitments from stakeholders and collaborators, help with task prioritization, and earlier consultation with key members of the trial team.
Conclusions: Implementing systematic approaches to identify milestones and track metrics can strengthen the evidence base regarding time and effort to plan and conduct pragmatic clinical trials. Investigators were unaccustomed to producing evidence of performance, and it was challenging to determine what documentation to provide. Efforts to standardize expectations regarding milestones that mark a significant change or stage in trial development or that represent minimum success criteria may provide guidance for more effective and efficient trial management. A framework with clearly specified metrics is especially critical for transparency, particularly when funding decisions are contingent on both merit and feasibility.
Keywords: Improving efficiencies; Metrics; Milestones; Phased award; Pragmatic trials; Trial conduct; Trial management.