Representatives from the International Children’s Advisory Network (iCAN), a worldwide consortium of children’s advisory groups that provide a voice for children and families in medicine and research, shared their insights at a recent PTN symposium held Sunday, April 28, at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
Reece Ohmer, a high school senior who is preparing to go to college in the fall, has lived with type 1 diabetes since she was 8 years old. She discussed the experience of “turning a negative into a positive” by using her voice to advocate for better research for young people.
She joined iCAN when she was 12, after an especially taxing doctor’s appointment. She had received upsetting lab results, but no one had engaged her in the conversation.
“The doctor was talking to my mom and my mom was talking to my doctor, and I pretended I wasn’t listening,” she said. “But I was.”
After the appointment, she tearfully shared her frustrations with her mother, who responded by asking her what she would do to make that experience better for another child. Reece eventually joined the hospital’s teen advisory council, which in 2014 became one of seven hospitals participating in iCAN.
Through the consortium, she has worked to advocate for better funding for pediatric research, ensure access for more children, provide input on assent and consent forms to make them more understandable, and verify that available research is actually the research children need.
“We’ve helped increase understanding within the medical community that in patient-centered care, even the youngest voice matters,” Reece said.
iCAN representatives acknowledged that there is an element of distrust when researchers approach patients and families. Patients are often unsure where the researchers are coming from and whether they have their best interest at heart.
“They don’t know me and my life,” said Sophia Klaudt, an iCAN member and high school junior living with cystic fibrosis. “It’s hard to build that relationship with researchers when I’m just a case study to them.”
The iCAN representatives suggested that researchers may not be the best people to make the initial contact about research opportunities. “Have existing families who have already been through this experience help bridge that gap for you,” said Amy Ohmer, Reece’s mother and director of iCAN. “These patient ambassadors can share that empathy because they understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.”
When researchers need to approach patients directly, iCAN representatives suggested that a nurse or someone in a trusted position introduce them as a new member of the team who is coming from a genuine place of care and concern.
The iCAN representatives acknowledged the challenges of getting adolescents, who enjoy more freedom and are less bound by their parents’ demands, to adhere to their medications.
To better incentivize patients, Reece encouraged clinicians to get to know them and where they are in their care journey. Treating a 7-year-old is completely different than treating a 17-year-old, she said, and each group has its own motives.
“When I was seven, candy would have motivated me, or a chart on my refrigerator,” she said. “Now things that would incentivize me would be being able to do things on my own independently of my family, which is something I had to work for.”
Sophia stressed the importance of compromise, and trusting adolescents to make responsible decisions. “Ultimately, I know it’s my health,” she said.
Amy Ohmer added that, as a parent, it is critical to stop scolding and start empathizing.
“We don’t say enough to our young people that what they’re doing is tough,” she said. “We need to remind them of what’s happening that’s positive in their life.”
Communicating with patients
Asked how researchers can better communicate with young patients, Sophia recommended that they tailor communications to the patient’s age and maturity level, and that they ensure the patient is informed throughout the process.
“I’ve been in studies where I felt informed at the beginning, but I wasn’t informed throughout,” she said. “[Patients] need to understand what’s going on throughout the whole process and be informed of the results.”
iCAN representatives reminded researchers to keep the patient first in mind when developing materials. They recommended putting the most important information front and center, providing clear timelines so patients get a better sense of the level of commitment involved, and thanking participants and informing them of the impact they have had. Finally, they encouraged the use of newer technologies to communicate with young people, meeting them where they are.
“We are the future, and we are going to be the biggest return on your clinical research investment,” Reece concluded.
Learn more about the 5th Annual iCAN Research & Advocacy Summit in Kansas City, Mo., June 24-28.