TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW: A Patient Advocate’s guide to being a Patient Advocate

A few weeks ago I was at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network Symposium at UCLA and was fortunate enough to hear Gianna McMillan speak about patient advocacy. It was a powerful, moving, funny, and truly engaging talk. I quickly realized I wanted to blog about her talk and so for the first few minutes I was busy taking notes as fast as I could.  And then I realized that a simple blog could never do justice to what Gianna was saying, that what we needed was to run the whole presentation. So here it is.

Gianna McMillan

Gianna McMillan at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Symposium: Photo courtesy UCLA

TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW

Gianna McMillan, MA – Patient/Subject Advocate, Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University

Stem cell research and regenerative medicine are appealing topics because patients, families and society are weary of inelegant medical interventions that inflict, in some cases, as much harm as benefit. We are tired of putting poison in our loved ones to kill their cancer or feeling helpless as other diseases attack our own bodily functions. California, full of dreamers and go-getters, has enthusiastically embraced this new technology—but it is important to remember that all biomedical research— even in a new field as exciting and inspiring as stem cell therapeutics – must adhere to basic premises. It must be valid science and it must be based on an ethical partnership with patients and research subjects.

In the world of research ethics, I wear a lot of hats. I have been a subject, a care-giver, an Institutional Review Board (IRB) member (someone who actually reviews and approves research studies before they are allowed to proceed), and I have worked with the government on regulatory committees. These days I am finishing my doctoral studies in Bioethics, and while I love the interplay of philosophy and ethical principles, I most truly identify as an in-the-trenches Patient/Subject Advocate. I am compelled to champion patients who struggle with new and devastating diagnoses, hoping desperately for a cure, and who might be faced with decisions about participating in research for their own benefit and for the greater good of science.

In the old days, doctors made decisions on behalf of their patients— who, meekly grateful for the guidance, did whatever they were told. It is a little different now. Patients are better informed, often do their own homework, and demand to be an integral part of their treatment plan. The world of research has undergone similar changes. Instead of investigators “doing things to research subjects”, best practices involve patients in the design of clinical trials. Patients and experienced subjects help decide what specific questions should be the focus of the research; they identify endpoints in the research that are meaningful to the patient population being studied; and they assist in devising tools for patient-reported outcomes and delivery of study results.

The investigator and the research subject have come to be seen as partners.

While the evolution of this important relationship is healthy and wonderful, it should not be assumed that this is an equal partnership. Why? Because subjects are always at a disadvantage.  I realize that this might be an uncomfortable concept. Physician-investigators in charge of the study might want to qualify this statement it by insisting “but we do our best to accommodate their needs”. Subjects would also rather not admit this—because it is hard to make a decision with confidence while simultaneously acknowledging, “I am really at a disadvantage here.”

However, I have learned the hard way that an honest partnership requires addressing some uncomfortable realities.

A short personal story illustrates what I am talking about. When my oldest son was five years old, he was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. Before meeting with our son’s treatment team for the first time, my husband and I decided that my husband, articulate and concise, would take the lead. He had a legal pad, with a list of questions… each question and answer would take us down the page until, at last, we would use all the information to make a decision—a life or death decision – on behalf of our young child.

In the meeting, the neurosurgeon pointed at brain scans and explained a few things. And then radiologist drew pictures of machines and treatment angles. The oncologist described risks and benefits and side effects. Then we all looked expectantly at my husband—because it was his turn. This lovely man opened his mouth. And closed his mouth. And then burst into tears, holding that legal pad over his chest like a shield. He could not speak. After a few seconds of horrified silence, I stammered out what few questions I could remember. The doctors answered, of course. Their mouths moved, and I leaned in and nodded while making eye contact – but I have no idea what they said.  All I heard was a loud white noise that filled my skull and my husband’s raspy breathing, and my own voice crying out in my head – “Oh my God! My child! My child!”

The point of this story is to illustrate that good people, educated and prepared, ready to bring their best selves to make the most important decision they would ever make, one that would affect the life of a beloved child— these people could not function. Despite this, in just a few days’ time, we were introduced to a research study, one that might cure our child while limiting the damage to his growing brain.  No matter how well-intentioned the research team was—no matter how desirous they were of a “partnership” with us, we were at such a distinct disadvantage, that the relationship we had with these investigators could not be categorized as one “among equals”.

Even now, more than twenty years later, it is painful for me to reflect on this. But I have learned, working with hundreds of families whose children went into clinical trials, that if we can be honest about the dysfunctional nature of this situation, we might take some action to improve it. Let me be specific about the ways research subjects are at a disadvantage.

  1. They often don’t speak the language of the disease.
  2. They are unfamiliar with the process of research.
  3. They are wrestling with emotions: despair, denial, anger and hope.
  4. Their life has been disrupted – and there are consequences.

Compare this with the research team, who knows the lingo, designed the research plan, is not personally affected by the scenario and well, this is business as usual: enroll a subject, let’s get going! How is the notion of “partnership” affected by such unequal circumstances?

Is a meaningful “partnership” even possible?

I say, yes! And this notion of “partnership” is especially important as new technologies come to invade intimate qualities of “self” and the building blocks of what makes each of us human. However, we need to be realistic about what this partnership looks like. It is not equal.  I am going to take a stand here and say that the partner who has the advantage (in this case, the researcher/scientist) is morally obligated to meaningfully address the disadvantage of the other party. This bears repeating. The partner who has the advantage is morally obligated to meaningfully address the disadvantage of the other party.

Over the years, families and subjects have told me what they want and need from the doctors and researchers they work with. They say:

  1. Tell me what I need to know.
  2. Tell me in a way I can hear it.
  3. Tell me again and again.

Let me expand on these a bit. First, if I am a patient new to a diagnosis, a treatment or research—I probably do not know what I do not know. Help me learn vocabulary, procedures, and systems. Tell me about the elements of informed consent so that I recognize them when I see them in the documents you want me to sign. Explain the difference between “standard of care” and “experimental treatment”. Help me understand the research question in the context of the disease (in general) and my own ailment (in particular). Give me the words to ask the questions that I should be asking.

Secondly, there are many different ways of sharing this information: print, video, websites, peer mentors, nurse-educators, and research team members. Hit the topic from all sides and in multiple formats. Thirdly, please realize that there is a learning curve for me— and it is closely tied to my emotional journey with my predicament. I may not be able to absorb certain facts at the very beginning, but a few weeks later I might be mentally and cognitively in a different place. And obviously, I might be an inexperienced research subject when I sign the consent form— but a few months later I will be vastly more sophisticated and at that time, I need the opportunity to ask my more considered and context-savvy questions.

I want to point out that researchers have access to a deep well of wisdom – a resource that can advise and support ethical actions that will help their disadvantaged partners: researchers can ask their experienced subjects for advice.

Remember those hundreds of families I worked with, whose children ultimately enrolled in clinical trials? These experienced parents say:

  • Let me tell you what I needed to know.
  • Let me tell you how I needed to hear it.

Getting input from these experienced subjects and caregivers does two things.

First, the research team is leveraging the investment they have already made in the participants of their studies; and secondly — very importantly — they are empowering the previously disadvantaged partner. Experienced subjects can to share what they have learned or give suggestions to the research team. Physicians and researchers might even build a stable of peer mentors who might be willing to help newbies learn about the process.

Everything I have said applies to all avenues of clinical research, but these are especially important considerations in the face of new and exciting science. It took a long time for more traditional research practices to evolve into an investigator/subject partnership model. Stem cell research and regenerative medicine has the opportunity to do this from the very start—and benefit from previous lessons learned.

When I was preparing my remarks for today, someone casually mentioned that I might talk about the “importance of balancing truth-telling in the informed consent process with respect for the hope of the family.” I would like to unequivocally state that the very nature of an “informed consent process” requires 100% truth, as does respect for the family—and that this does not undermine our capacity for hope. We place our hope in this exciting new science and the doctors and researchers who are pioneers. We understand that there are many unknowns in this new field. Please be honest with us so that we might sort out our thoughts and our hopes for ourselves, in our own contexts.

What message would I wish the scientists here, today, to take away with them?      Well, I am putting on my Patient/Subject Advocate hat, and in my Patient/Subject Advocate voice, I am saying: “Tell me what I need to know!”