MCW Cancer Center’s New Patient Navigation Program Improves Access to Life-Saving Clinical Trials

Woman with caregiverIn a significant stride towards inclusivity in cancer care, the MCW Cancer Center has launched a new Patient Navigation Program aimed at improving clinical trial access and participation in underserved communities. At the forefront of this initiative is the inaugural patient navigator, Adrena Luckett, who will guide patients and families through the complex landscape of cancer clinical trials, and ensure that every person visiting the Cancer Center has an equal opportunity to participate in life-saving studies. The program, led by the Community Outreach and Engagement Office (COE) with oversight from the Clinical Trials Office (CTO), is part of the center’s ongoing efforts to eliminate disparities and forge a path towards a cancer-free Wisconsin.

“The partnership between the COE and CTO is invaluable for expanding clinical trial access in our community. The COE already supports this goal by creating and sharing educational resources, working with clinicians to refine recruitment processes, and providing insights on trial inclusion,” said Staci Young, PhD, Associate Director of COE.

“The new patient navigator takes this work to the next level by removing the barriers that often prevent patients from participating in cancer clinical trials. As both an advocate and trusted source for the community, Adrena will help raise awareness of cutting-edge studies, reduce common fears and stigma surrounding clinical research, and address logistical barriers to trial participation,” said Dr. Young.

Eradicating cancer means investigating how cancer impacts everyone—regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or economic status—and discovering treatments for all types of patients. However, recent research from the Food & Drug Administration shows that racial and ethnic minority groups remain severely underrepresented in clinical trials. In 2020, 75% of trial participants were white, 11% were Hispanic, 8% were Black, and 6% were Asian, despite nearly 40% of people in the United States belonging to a minority group.

“Cancer investigators gather more reliable data when clinical trials include people from all backgrounds; more comprehensive data helps us determine if a new medicine or treatment strategy will be effective in real-world populations,” said Stuart Wong, MD, Professor of Hematology and Oncology, and Chair of the Head and Neck Disease-Oriented Team (DOT)—one of 16 DOTs comprised of basic, translational, clinical, and population health scientists focused on specific disease areas. “However, structural barriers related to social determinants of health—as well as factors like literacy, knowledge, attitudes, and trust—are major impediments to diverse representation in cancer clinical trials. For underserved patients facing a new cancer diagnosis, patient navigation is an effective way to address these challenges.”

Inclusive clinical trial enrollment has long been a priority for the Cancer Center. In September 2023, in collaboration with Froedtert Hospital, the center implemented a pilot patient navigation project in the genitourinary (GU) cancer clinics; the project employed a navigator to work with the CTO to identify underserved patients eligible for trials, then meet with the patients to educate them on trial opportunities and address concerns about participation. Based on the successes seen in the GU cancer clinics, patient navigation is now planned for all DOTs.

“Patient navigation has proven to be a successful tool for breaking down the barriers that many underserved patients face when enrolling in a clinical trial. The MCW Cancer Center’s dedication to providing equitable cancer care, demonstrated by the new patient navigator, will help advance groundbreaking science and improve outcomes for all patients with cancer,” said Dr. Wong.

In the coming months, Dr. Young said she will expand the program to include more navigators who will provide critical support, education, and assistance to patients throughout the trial process. “This program will help empower patients to make informed decisions, access the latest treatments, and contribute to advancements in cancer care. Together, we are building a healthier, more equitable community where all patients can get the care they need, when they need it,” she said.

Get to Know the Patient Navigator

Adrena Luckett brings a wealth of experience and a deep understanding of the healthcare system to her new role as the MCW Cancer Center Patient Navigator. She previously served as Member Advocate, then Senior Community Relations Advocate at United Healthcare, reflecting her dedication to building community partnerships and enhancing health outcomes for individuals facing significant health adversities. Adrena is a certified oncology navigator and financial navigator, accredited by the George Washington University Navigation program, positioning her to effectively address barriers to care for cancer patients and survivors. Her arrival marks a new era on the Center’s journey to advance health equity for people in Wisconsin and beyond.

“The driving force behind my pursuit of this role lies in my deep-rooted passion for patient advocacy and healthcare accessibility. I am profoundly moved by the opportunity to directly support patients and their families as they navigate the intricate pathways of their cancer journey. By offering personalized guidance and access to essential resources, my goal is to ensure all patients seeking cancer care feel supported, valued, and heard,” said Luckett.

Q&A with Adrena

How do you support patients who are considering enrolling in a cancer clinical trial?
As a patient navigator, I offer comprehensive support to patients during their cancer journey, with a focus on emotional well-being and access to resources. I also closely collaborate with clinicians, CTO staff, healthcare professionals, and community organizations to broaden the reach of support services and resources, facilitate seamless care coordination and communication channels, and identify opportunities to improve patient outcomes through collective efforts and shared resources. My main priorities involve:

  • Education: I educate patients about the purpose, benefits, and potential risks of participating in clinical trials. I explain the trial process, including eligibility criteria and informed consent requirements, in clear language.
  • Screening and Enrollment: I help identify eligible patients for specific clinical trials based on their medical history and treatment options, then facilitate the enrollment process by assisting with paperwork, scheduling appointments, and coordinating necessary tests or procedures.
  • Support and Advocacy: I provide ongoing support and advocacy for patients throughout their participation in clinical trials, addressing any concerns or questions patients may have, offer emotional support, and advocate for their needs within the healthcare system.
  • Communication: I serve as a bridge between patients and clinical trial teams, ensuring clear and effective communication among all parties involved. I facilitate discussions between patients and their care team to ensure informed decision-making and shared decision-making regarding trial participation.
  • Resource Coordination: I help patients access additional resources and support services that may be beneficial during their clinical trial participation, such as transportation assistance, financial counseling, or psychosocial support.
  • Follow-Up: I follow up with patients regularly to monitor their progress, assess any side effects or adverse events, and address any issues that may arise during the clinical trial. I help patients navigate any necessary adjustments to their treatment plan and provide ongoing support as needed.

What strategies are you implementing to ensure patients from diverse backgrounds have equal opportunities to participate in clinical trials?
I will employ several strategies to ensure patients from all backgrounds have access to our clinical trials, including culturally appropriate communication, outreach and education, addressing barriers, and building trust. Collaboration with community organizations will also be pivotal in increasing awareness and accessibility to clinical trial opportunities. By working together, we can develop targeted strategies to increase participation in clinical trials among underserved communities.

In what ways does patient navigation contribute to advancing cancer research and improving patient outcomes?
Patient navigation fulfills a vital role in bridging the gap between patients, providers, and researchers, thereby facilitating seamless communication and collaboration. It helps to advance cancer research and improve patient outcomes by increasing clinical trial enrollment, enhancing access to care, facilitating shared decision-making, promoting continuity of care, and providing emotional and psychosocial support. By addressing patients’ needs and empowering them to navigate their cancer journey, patient navigation ensures that every patient receives the highest quality care and support.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in this new role?
I hope to cultivate a comprehensive support infrastructure tailored to the needs of cancer patients and their families, thereby fostering an environment wherein their journey toward healing and wellness is facilitated with great care and compassion.