Improving cancer outcomes by helping regional patients join clinical trials

Cancer specialist Associate Professor Craig Underhill is leading an ambitious program to improve cancer outcomes in regional Victoria by 2025. He is giving patients access to new treatments by increasing their access to clinical trials.

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Closing the gap in cancer outcomes between urban and regional areas

‘In general, there is a gap in cancer outcomes between urban and regional areas,’ says Associate Professor Craig Underhill, Director of Cancer Services at Albury Wodonga Regional Cancer Centre. ‘Broadly speaking, the further you live from a capital city, the worse your cancer outcome will be.’ 

Craig hopes to improve cancer outcomes for regional patients by 2025 by helping them join clinical trials. ‘We know that people who have cancer who can access clinical trials do better than if they're not on a trial,’ Craig says. ‘This may be because clinical trials give patients new treatments.’ 

Building capacity through a regional health services network 

To help regional patients join more clinical trials, Craig is working with 8 regional health services in Victoria. This network works together to increase and expand clinical trial sites. They are running new clinical trials and encouraging more people to join them. New training will meet regional cancer needs. The projects include: 

  • New clinical trials units at Mildura Public Hospital and Latrobe Regional Hospital.
  • New research and clinical trials for:
    • older Australian with cancer
    • palliative and supportive care
    • immunotherapy.
  • Researching barriers to First Nations people accessing trials and co-designing solutions.
  • A new Regional Research Teaching Hub to upskill regional health care workers to lead more research.
  • A new registry trials program for trials comparing standard treatments.

Using telehealth 

Using telehealth to conduct clinical trials makes it easier for people living in the regions to join trials. For this reason, the network is working to embed the use of telehealth in clinical trials.

Telehealth is also helping the team conduct research across the network of health services. ‘We have a dispersed network of centres,’ Craig tells us. ‘But we now have the technology to start solving problems together.’

Shared leadership builds regional research capability 

Sharing research leadership across the network is helping each health service build its capability to conduct research and offer new services. Craig says, ‘no single site could have done something of this magnitude on their own. It's amazing what we can achieve and leverage by working together. 

‘It has been great to see early to mid-career researchers stepping up as project leaders. They are excited about doing this work. They now have confidence to apply for other research grants and win them.’

Supporting consumer voices

Cancer consumers involved in Craig’s research program have formed a regional Consumer Reference Group. ‘We've been able to give a voice to regional cancer consumers,’ Craig says. ‘Now they are helping to design other research questions and how we might further improve cancer care in regional Australia.’

Attracting more health and medical trainees to regional Australia 

Craig hopes the growth in research through the health services network will attract more health and medical trainees to the region. ‘We did a survey on barriers to trainees moving to regions. They include not being able to join a network or do research,’ Craig says. ‘This project helps to overcome that.’

New models of research and care for all Australian regions 

‘Other states and regions could learn from what we have done and set up similar programs,’ Craig adds. 

‘It's been exciting to see how far we've come. If we can bridge that difference in outcomes between urban and regional areas by 2025, then the experience of cancer patients will be better. More importantly there will be lives saved.’

The MRFF funded Craig’s Revitalise project with a grant of $18.6 million. This project was part of a $125 million investment taking clinical trials to rural, regional and remote areas.

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