Bringing clinical trials to regional patients


5 Minute read

The University of Melbourne is collaborating with regional and rural GPs across the country to improve health outcomes, with the help of an innovative new platform.

Key points

  • A new application is using innovative technology to automatically identify patients in general practices across Australia who are eligible for clinical trials.
  • While recruiting clinical trial participants can take weeks to months, the platform, called Torch Recruit, identifies eligible patients with a click of a button.
  • Torch Recruit plays a key role in the University of Melbourne’s new collaboration with academic GPs across regional and rural Australia, known as the PARTNER network.
  • The PARTNER network will become a major resource to help regional and rural patients gain equitable access to clinical trials, addressing healthcare inequity and driving better health outcomes.

The outcome

The PARTNER Network and Torch Recruit will be a major resource for people living in regional and rural areas to gain more equitable access to clinical trials, leading to better health outcomes.

Torch Recruit creates tailored algorithms to identify patients who are eligible to participate in clinical trials. This enables a more streamlined and cost-effective approach to clinical trial recruitment. Torch Recruit will be a key platform used in the PARTNER network, a collaboration of prominent academic GPs from across regional and rural Australia, led by the University of Melbourne.

The PARTNER program’s first exemplar trial is the ‘Identifying cirrhosis and liver cancer in primary care’ (IC3) trial. IC3 aims to reduce the mortality related to liver cancer and identify people at risk earlier. The trial will use Torch Recruit to search electronic medical records and identify patients with risk factors for liver cancer. The automated process will enable the researchers to efficiently reach a defined patient cohort.

“Without this method of identifying patients, recruitment would be challenging,” says Dr Leon Adams, a Western Australia-based hepatology specialist who is partnering with the University of Melbourne for the trial. “We’d be cold calling patients, relying on General Practitioners who are incredibly busy, and I think we’d see a high screening failure rate.”

The need

Clinical trials are vital for developing new medical treatments. But more than 80 per cent of trials fail to enrol enough patients on time. One quarter of clinical trials are prematurely discontinued, with poor recruitment a contributor in over 75 per cent of cases. Clinical trials are also often centred on hospital-based care, and not community-based care or GPs. These barriers can have major flow-on effects both economically and in terms of healthcare outcomes.

“It’s a massive problem, and we saw an opportunity to address it, bring more investigator-led trials to regional and rural Australia and address the delays that can result from not being able to translate research into practice if you’re not recruiting patients on time,” says Associate Professor Jo-Anne Manski-Nankervis, an academic GP in the Department of General Practice.

The problem is particularly acute for Australians living in regional and rural areas. Patients in regional and rural Australia are more likely to die younger, develop cancer and have less access to effective treatment than people living in cities.

The research

PARTNER will enable GPs, industry partners and academic researchers to participate in a national network and conduct research across the country. There will be the ability for research beyond clinical trials, including for policymaking.

PARTNER is part of the Australian Teletrial Program, a joint initiative of six states and territories, led by Queensland Health. Within that program, PARTNER is focused on running clinical trials through primary care.

One key benefit of this approach to research is that it enables GPs to take the lead, says the Department of General Practice’s Dr Kristi Milley. "I’m excited about the potential for GPs to create research that meets the needs of their local community. It also gives us a national ability to develop research that affects all Australians as well, so it’s local and national at the same time.”

The partnership has shown the value in national collaboration, adds Dr Leon Adams. “This experience has been a real eye-opener for me personally, to see how well the Department of General Practice does things and it has highlighted where we need to go in Western Australia.”

PARTNER builds on an information-sharing network by the    Department of General Practice’s Data for Decisions program. The program has developed a network of 140 general practices around Australia who share information from electronic health records to improve healthcare practices and policy. The Data for Decisions program enables primary care research projects that increase knowledge and improve healthcare practices and policy, by using carefully managed, de-identified data.

Technology development history

The University of Melbourne’s Department of General Practice originally collaborated with Western Health to develop a clinical tool that GPs could use to optimise the management of chronic disease. The researchers soon realised that the same technology could also be used to boost clinical trial recruitment. The technology was transformed into Torch Recruit, an application for GPs that automatically identifies trial eligible patients in general practices across Australia. With pre-seed investment by the University of Melbourne and Western Health, Torch Recruit Pty Ltd has launched as a spin out company.


The Department of General Practice

PARTNER network

Torch Recruit

Funding support

Medical Research Future Fund – National Critical Infrastructure Initiative, $4 million.

Medical Research Future Fund – Targeted Translation Research Accelerator (TTRA) for Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease Research Projects: Round 1 powered by MTPConnect, $749,981.00

Medical Research Future Fund – Targeted Translation Research Accelerator (TTRA) Centre for Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease Research Centre:  Australian Centre for Accelerating Diabetes Innovations (ACADI), powered by MTPConnect. Project grant $199,992.41

Investment support to Torch Recruit Pty Ltd from pre-seed investment by the University of Melbourne $250, 000.

Investment support to Torch Recruit Pty Ltd from Western Health $250,000.

First published on 9 March 2023.

Share this article
Health and wellbeingTechnologyFaculty of Medicine Dentistry And Health Sciences