Intellectual and technical challenges keep the work of a research nurse interesting. But Lisa Marsh says the journey with her patients is one of her favorite things about her job.
"The 'ah-ha' moment when the trial results are discovered is exciting," says Marsh, research nurse supervisor, Infectious Diseases. "But my role allows me to interact with patients on trials for several months, or even years, and the relationships I build with them are especially rewarding."
Following protocol on protocols during clinical trials
Every clinical trial for cancer treatment follows a detailed plan called a protocol. Managing the clinical and operational aspects of protocols is a primary responsibility for Marsh and her fellow research nurses.
Shyunika Bolden, a research nurse in Clinical Cancer Prevention, says that "protocol management can be a bit like performing a juggling act while riding a unicycle."
But she appreciates that her work allows her to wear many different hats.
"Each protocol includes several patients, and I'm coordinating four to five protocols at any given time," Bolden says. "Plus the protocols all are in different stages. Organization is everything."
Research nurses never stop learning, she adds.
"With each new protocol, I'm learning about different drugs, diseases and devices," Bolden says. "I must fully understand the protocol's objectives and which patients are eligible to participate."
Communicating with care
Communicating with care is a critical competence for all nurses. But for research nurses, communications skills must include highly specialized knowledge about human subjects' protection.
Recruiting patients for trials involves verifying eligibility and then talking with each patient to educate him or her about study details. Research nurses want to ensure that patients fully understand their options. Guiding patients through the consent process is just the first of many conversations between nurse and patient.
Subsequent conversations involve educating patients about timelines, procedures, the drugs being used, anticipated side effects, documenting their symptoms and more.
Research nurses must use their clinical abilities, too. They collect blood samples, administer vaccines, check lab work, and use critical thinking to assess a patient's health and review adverse events or treatment toxicities. Throughout, they ensure patients meet protocol goals.
Data, data and more data: Collecting clinical trial results
Another significant role of a research nurse is to collect data throughout the trial. After all, the success of the study is only as good as the data.
"From demographics and medical history to symptoms and side effects, everything must be recorded," Bolden says.
Taking on these research-related skills can be challenging at first, Marsh says, but for those interested in research, it's fascinating. In addition to learning about various databases, research nurses must adhere to federal regulations and Institutional Review Board (IRB) policies. The IRB is the administrative body that protects the rights and welfare of patients participating in research. Each protocol and any subsequent changes to protocols must receive IRB approval, which often is coordinated with the help of the research nurse.
"We're constantly relaying information to the principal investigator and the IRB," Bolden says. "We want to make sure our data entry is up to par so a successful drug can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration."
"We can't guarantee a cure," Marsh says, "but we can guarantee that we're going to take the best care of our patients while giving them access to treatment options they might not have had otherwise."
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly employee publication.