Medical trials that offer free health care are attracting Treasure Valley patients

People with common conditions are lining up to try to participate in clinical research

adutton@idahostatesman.comApril 29, 2012 

Brianna Conklin was in her mid-20s when she began a yearlong test of a diabetes treatment that had not been on the market before.

Conklin, who lives in Nampa, has had diabetes her entire life. She was introduced to clinical trials by Saltzer Medical Group’s Dr. Stanley Stringam, one of several Treasure Valley physicians taking part in the clinical testing of new drugs and techniques to treat problems such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Now tests are attracting Treasure Valley patients in the down economy, offering new treatments with free medication, supplies, doctor’s visits and frequent monitoring. At least three local businesses conduct clinical trials, as do the St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems.

Idaho is a slightly more popular site for these tests than its population alone merits, with 311 tests under way today among 16,000 nationwide, according to national data. Most clinical testing is done simultaneously at many sites around the U.S. Local researchers say Idaho helps meet drug testers’ needs for rural participants.

Sometimes the trial sponsor — usually a drug company — pays a small stipend. Sponsors also generally reimburse the health care provider for the cost of doing the trials.

Conklin said she was sold on being a test subject in a clinical trial for two reasons.

There was “the perk of not having to pay for insulin and test strips” during the trial, which ended in March 2011. Those two things usually cost her $85 a month. And she “thought it would be good to have some accountability,” Conklin said. The trial required her to closely track her eating habits, insulin and blood sugar.

Her blood-sugar levels were the best they’d ever been, partly because of closer monitoring, not just the insulin being tested.

She usually sees her doctor every three months. During the drug trial, it was every two weeks.

Stringam is a fairly active clinical researcher. He has done diabetes, antibiotic and cardiovascular trials, and about 50 of his patients are currently in clinical trials. Some of the testing lasts for years.

THE EXPERIENCE

Nampa resident Eloyd Harris is 57 and has been diabetic for several years. He said he saved a minimum of $50 a month while in a diabetes trial under Stringam’s care.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “A little time-consuming, but ... the benefits outweighed the time.”

In studies such as the one Harris was in, a placebo — sugar pill — usually isn’t used for a “control” test group because the patients need the medication, researchers say.

Stringam said that before trials start, patients always get a lengthy form telling them what they’re signing up for. They’ll know whether there’s a possibility of getting a placebo and what phase of research they’ll be part of. Most trials in the Treasure Valley are in the final phases of research.

The studies are voluntary, so patients can pull out if, for example, they have bad side effects.

Most people “get better” during the trials, Stringam said. Some are disappointed when the study ends to learn that their medication won’t be on the market for a long time.

Harris said his diabetes went back to being “out of control” when his study ended. He has just started a new diet, Medifast, under his doctor’s recommendation.

Trials could be an especially big boon to patients who are struggling financially.

Diabetics in Idaho who lack health insurance can spend $250 to $300 a month just on insulin, Stringam said. The trials give them access to medication and supplies they can’t afford, he said.

“I have people who are clamoring to get on a study” because their drugs are so expensive, he said.

INTEREST EBBS AND FLOWS

The poor economy hasn’t really boosted enrollment in clinical trials at ACR Idaho, said Allie Lopez, site director for the Boise clinical research center at 2950 E. Magic View Drive. But it does seem that more people have time to participate in the trials, partly because more people are out of work, she said.

Lopez said interest hinges more on the kind of trial and even the time of year.

Weight-loss research? “The phones are ringing off the hook,” she said. Smoking and tobacco cessation around the New Year? Same thing.

But the center still advertises to reach potential subjects. Some clinical researchers have put up billboards or run other advertisements to recruit people for studies.

“Every once in a while, (a referring doctor) will say, ‘This patient just lost his job and can’t afford medication,’ ” Lopez said.

But trials have stringent criteria — studies are targeted at specific ages, genders, locations, symptoms and medical details — so a person might not qualify for one, but could qualify for another.

“We could have 1,000 people in our database (for a health condition), and only 10 qualify,” Lopez said. “If they do qualify, then everything that happens during the course of the study is at no cost to them. ... Doesn’t come out of their insurance, doesn’t come out of pocket, and in some cases provides a little stipend.”

Lopez did a flu study in which patients just walked in sick and got swabbed. The results went off to researchers tracking flu strains. She remembers that study because “you got paid for being sick.”

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service