Up Close: Kelly Wiggins, Optim Orthopedics’ Director of Research

Thank you to the Society for Clinical Research Sites for this fantastic profile of Kelly Wiggins, RN, CCRC, Director of Research for Optim Orthopedics and Clinical Research Coordinator. 

From the November 2018 “InFocus” newsletter from the Society for Clinical Research Sites:

Kelly Wiggins began her medical career as an open-heart surgery nurse. She loved it, but after seven years the schedule became too taxing. A colleague suggested she apply for a clinical research coordinator role; she applied, got the job, and just like that the direction of her career changed. Little did she know at the time that the schedule of a clinical research professional is often just as grueling as that of a nurse! But what her clinical research career lacks in free time it makes up for in the dividends Kelly prizes most: the abilities to connect to her patients and to make real and lasting change in people’s lives.

“I’m a connecting kind of person,” Kelly said during our interview. “Often, visits with my patients take a long time because I take the time to get to know them. I find that doing so helps me treat them more effectively.” Helping to bring new products to market is a part of this connection for Kelly: “Most everyone dreams of improving lives through innovative technology and devices, but I actually get to do it,” she said.

I asked Kelly what kept her at the same site for more than eleven years and in the role of clinical research coordinator for more than sixteen. She laughed, realizing I’d done a little LinkedIn research prior to our talk. “I’m the director of research at Optim Healthcare,” she said. “But I’m also the clinical research coordinator – it’s a one-man show over here. I like the challenge of working with contracts and budgets, and I enjoy the coordinator roles because I love the patient interaction.” Kelly has a very low loss of follow-up with the patients she works with, which demonstrates the value of the personal connection she develops with her patients.

Despite enjoying her job, Kelly noted that it is a considerable challenge to juggle many things at a time and switch gears at a moment’s notice. Continuing on this topic, I asked Kelly what she sees as one of the site industry’s more significant challenges. She called out remote monitoring. “It can be a good thing – a great thing – but my observation is that it requires a lot of work on the site side, and often it feels like the work we put in isn’t equally met by the sponsor.” While remote monitoring has many benefits, Kelly finds on-site monitoring to be more efficient in one key area: communication. “When the monitor is onsite, their job can be done then and there without back-and forth emailing and phone calls,” Kelly said. “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with remote monitoring. I just don’t believe that we’re effective enough communicators to let it do its job and truly simplify the monitoring process. To many sites, it feels like it adds steps instead of creating ease in process.”

To alleviate some of these burdens, Kelly’s site incorporates remote monitoring costs into their budgets so that the time spent on the activity is captured and compensated. Optim Healthcare focuses on orthopedic trials, which are very specialized – “Studies don’t just come knocking on our door,” Kelly said. As a result, she picks and chooses what she fights for in their CTAs and has found a way to embrace remote monitoring without sacrificing quality communication.

Speaking of what she fights hard for, Kelly has taken her love of helping others to the very highest level. She went on her first mission to Africa in 2004 to aid those in need in Zambia, and was forever changed by the experience. She returned the very next year to work with the children in Zambia. “After the trip in 2005, my husband and I didn’t return for a long time because we wanted to start our family, but the pull to go back to Africa never left me.  Once our children, whom we adopted, were a little older, I felt it was time to go back,” she shared. In 2017, Kelly went on her third mission with a team of eleven, providing medical services to 1,300 people in four days in a remote village in Zimbabwe. This past year, she co-led her fourth mission, guiding a group of five.

I asked Kelly what she would do at her site if she had no limits. She said she would build a center to accommodate pain studies where patients can stay overnight to be monitored, giving them a particular drug to see if it was more or less beneficial than another. “But you can’t bite off more than you can chew!” Kelly said. “That’s an important part of site sustainability: measure your dreams against reality so that you don’t diminish your ability to change patients’ lives by doing too much, too fast.”

So, what is important to focus on? “Sometimes coordinators forget the human element,” she said. “It’s important that we remember that patients are gifting us their time to be a part of the study. Patients need to be seen as people – first impressions are important and can make or break whether a patient wants to be in a study. How we communicate with the patient is so important.”