When Dr. Raymond Wynne Phillips retired from full-time clinical practice with Gastroenterology Group of Naples last December, he didn’t want to stop the gastroenterology medical research and clinical trial work he’d been doing for much of his career in Naples.
So he established a formal entity called GI PROS Research to continue those efforts.
He knows the important role research and clinical trials play in discovering and approving new medications, treatments and medical devices to address all kinds of health issues. Anyone who watched the process of developing the COVID-19 vaccines saw how different phases of trials and the data they produced were used to determine things like safety, efficacy and ultimately approval for use.
But despite that recent real-world, high-stakes example that played out in the daily news, Phillips believes a lot of misconceptions and misperceptions remain about medical research, from where it is conducted to the important roles clinical trial participants play. So, in addition to continuing his own research in gastroenterology, he’s working to establish the SWFL Research Network.
The network not only aims to bring together various medical professionals and entities conducting research in and around Southwest Florida, but it also hopes to spread the word to both patients and the community as a whole about the valuable medical research being done in the Sunshine State. In doing so, a potential secondary benefit could come in helping to make the region, which already has Lee Health, one of the largest community hospital organizations in the state, a go-to spot for doctors and medical researchers. So far representatives from six different medical groups/institutions have participated in some aspect of the network.
“Nothing gets approved in the United States without everybody’s participation,” says Phillips, 67. “And we’ve got a perception problem in the medical community that research is something done ‘somewhere else.’ No, it is not; it is done in communities at large across the United States.”
Pros for patients
Phillips can understand why medical research can be a confusing topic for many. "The research environment in the United States, as it is right now, is a bit vague,” he says.
Years ago, a lot of clinical trials were done at the university level, as those institutions had the interest, means and patient populations to undertake that work. But in order to ensure research is conducted among a diverse, representative population of patients, who may not live in major cities or close to large universities, there’s been an effort to distribute trials around the country, says Phillips.
“Every medicine approved by the FDA had to go through clinical trials in communities across the United States,” he says. Current clinical trials taking place at GI PROS Research, for example, include studies related to a possible oral medication for the prevention of recurrent Clostridioides difficile infection, also known as C. Diff; two potential treatments for Crohn’s disease; and potential screening methods for colorectal and liver cancer.
Some patients with no other medical options for their conditions are more than willing to participate in clinical trials in the hopes of finding a solution that works for them personally. Other patients are less enthusiastic.
“As I’ve been doing this clinical research over the last 30 years, I’ve been getting more and more pushback from patients saying, ‘If I’ve got insurance, I don’t ever want to volunteer for a clinical trial. I only want the approved meds,’” he says. “But then you come up with an illness that has no approved meds, like COVID-19, and it involves people volunteering for research…You can see the problem you have: You want to include a diverse population in trials, but when large segments of the population self-select themselves out of the trials, it’s a peculiar circumstance.”
He’s seen people willing to financially support research around diseases like cancer and diabetes through contributions to a host of nonprofit organizations. He suggests people should think about medical research going on in communities like Southwest Florida all across the country as working in tandem with those monetary donations.
“Research is what underpins all these different illnesses and how products are approved,” he says. “It really does require a complete community awareness. Not every person is going to be keen about participating in a clinical trial, but they can at least understand it and not be suspicious of it. And if there is local research being done, someone can be aware of it, and they can participate in their local trials and not have to go off to Miami or somewhere like that.”
That’s where an organization like the SWFL Research Network comes in. By creating a group of local professionals involved in research, Phillips hopes to bring everyone together to share insight and successes — and also help raise awareness of the exciting medical advancements being studied right here.
The NCH Research Institute, the research arm for NCH Healthcare System in Naples, has participated in the two calls the SWFL Research Network has convened so far. “We definitely are interested in anything that would advance the community, and I think that’s what this could really do,” says Linda Martin, consulting director of the NCH Research Institute.
The institute is about a year old and currently has about 20 trials in process, studying everything from pharmaceuticals to medical devices. The trials currently are mostly in the cardiovascular field, but expansion to other areas is coming.
“The goal of this institute is to serve all the specialties we have and to really serve our physicians to provide them with treatment options for our patients,” Martin says. “It’s hard enough to be sick and losing control of the things around you. But to have to be treated outside your community puts an even further strain on it. So we want to make sure the Naples community has the best variety of treatment options and can receive those treatments within their own area.”
Outcomes of medical research can clearly benefit individual patients. But there are broader impacts, too.
A strong local medical research sector, for example, helps support graduate medical education programs at area hospitals. There are many options for medical school graduates when it comes to locations for doing internships and residencies, and something like the SWFL Research Network could help serve as a differentiator for the region.
“Part of graduate medical education is an emphasis on research,” Phillips says. “In order for residents to do research, they need research opportunities.”
“I think it’s great Dr. Phillips is organizing this and getting this off the ground,” adds Dr. Hermes Koop, designated institutional official for NCH Healthcare System Graduate Medical Education, an affiliate of the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine and Science. “He has been in Naples for many years and has a great reputation as a physician.”
The graduate medical education program at NCH is five years old and still growing. More local research opportunities would definitely be a plus for its participants.
“We’re working with Dr. Phillips to try to see if this can be a win-win-win,” Koop says. “A win for his interests, a win for patients in our community and a win for our residents to get that experience doing research, writing articles and case reports, or just reporting on clinical studies. That’s a tremendous benefit, because how do we assess things as physicians? We read the research in journals. So knowing how that process works allows us to learn and interpret things better.”
A thriving local research network could also help draw graduates to the area. They know that “research opportunities look good on their resumes,” says Koop. “For some of the very competitive fellowships they may want to do after residency…having done research really helps with bolstering their chances of getting into one of those programs.”
It also might help keep medical residents here in Southwest Florida. “One big reason we developed graduate medical education at NCH is there is a huge looming doctor shortage in the future,” says Koop. “If you look at where most residents wind up living after completing their residency training programs, it’s usually in close proximity to where they did their training. Hopefully the people we train get comfortable with our system, like our area and will settle here and contribute to our community and patients.”
He says NCH has seen that already. About half the residents the health system has trained have stayed in Southwest Florida in some capacity.
The SWFL Research Network, too, would like to become a place where local medical professionals can discuss not only research techniques, challenges and triumphs but how the research they’re involved in could positively impact the area.
“I think one thing it would do for actual researchers is it gives them a support group,” says Martin, with the NCH Research Institute. “Research is a difficult world…It’s always good to hear what other people are doing, and maybe how they reached a solution on something or at least improved it. It’s feeling like there are people out there facing my same issue and also experiencing the same success, which is a very good feeling.”