Clinical trial matching: the frustration of matching patients to cancer research begins with data issues — and can end with artificial intelligence

If you work in oncology or cancer clinical trial coordination in the US, you already know the numbers don’t always work in your or your patients’ favor.

Less than 5 percent of adults with cancer participate in patient clinical trials,1 and one in every five cancer research trials is stymied due to lack of patient recruitment.2 Yet millions of new cancer cases of are diagnosed annually.2

In a healthcare system that focuses on innovation and continuous improvement, how can there be such a disconnect in clinical trial recruitment?

Manual processes, unstructured data and imprecise criteria

Typically, the problem lies in finding matches within available data — identifying the right patients with the right clinical attributes, who meet highly specific eligibility criteria for a relevant clinical trial’s recruitment.

That data-matching identification process can be daunting. And at most medical centers, it is still performed manually. Staff are charged with reviewing complex and lengthy electronic health records (EHRs) and creating multifaceted spreadsheets to guide the matchmaking.

Complicating matters is that about 80 percent of healthcare data is unstructured,3 making traditional rules-based alignment between patients and trials tricky. Plus, available trial criteria can be vague or incomplete.

How to solve the problem of cumbersome clinical trial identification? Artificial intelligence.

The evolution of artificial intelligence (AI)-based screening processes is being driven by the pressing need to automate data-driven trial identification steps and increase the speed at which matches can be made.

An AI-based solution is able to ingest and link large amounts of both structured and unstructured patient EHR data, medical literature and trial information and eligibility criteria from

The use of natural language processing allows an AI-based system to analyze all of that collected data. And AI can take unstructured, inexact and lengthy criteria lists and learn how to interpret the trial requirements, based on every patient case.

So, without any manual intervention, an AI-based solution can understand both the clinical data in the medical record and the inclusion/exclusion criteria of the trials, and it can do it quickly. In one IBM Watson Health study, AI-based identification cut the time required to screen patients for clinical trial eligibility by 78 percent.4

Staff can, in minutes, access a list of trials for which a patient is potentially eligible, and equally as important, a list of trials from which the patient has been excluded based on eligibility.

From that detailed analysis, clinicians can decide which trials to explore further as treatment options, and research trial coordinators are able to continuously review available patients for potential eligibility to meet their recruitment targets.

The future of clinical trial recruitment belongs to AI

As the adoption of AI technology and clinical trial matching services increase in clinical trial recruitment — particularly in academic and research medical centers around the nation — patient screening efficiency and capacity will only increase, and more effective trial recruitment will become the norm.

That’s good news for patients, healthcare providers and science.

Understand the role of AI in cancer research and patient recruitment

1 Cartmell KB, Bonilha HS, Matson T, Bryant DC, Zapka J, Bentz TA, et al. Patient participation in cancer clinical trials: A pilot test of lay navigation. Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications. 2016;3:86-93.

2 Bennette CS, Ramsey SD, McDermott CL, Carlson JJ, Basu A, Veenstra DL. Predicting low accrual in the National Cancer Institute’s cooperative group clinical trials. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2016;108(2):djv324.

3 “Data-driven healthcare organizations use big data analytics for big gains,” IBM white paper, February 2013.

4 IBM Watson Health technology feasibility study with Highlands Oncology Group and Novartis; screening time was reduced from 1 hour and 50 minutes to 24 minutes.