By Molly Downhour, MHA, BSN, NEA-BC, OCN® CCRC

Nurses can do it all. After all, the often-unsung heroes of health care use their unique skills to positively impact patients and their families in more ways than most people can ever imagine. Unfortunately, role confusion and a lack of awareness of a vital specialty have led to a dire need of nurses in clinical trials.

Components of Clinical Nursing Research

Nurses often grapple with the terms “evidence-based practice,” “nursing research,” and “clinical research nurses,” which are frequently used interchangeably, causing further confusion.

  • Evidence-based practice (EBP) is the act of synthesizing and evaluating research literature to support ideal nursing practice; ideal in patient (and nurse) safety, outcomes, efficiency, and healthcare savings.
  • Nursing research is the scientific process of answering a question or validating data. It involves institutional review board oversight and is designed to reduce bias and be reproducible. Nursing research often results in evidenced based practice. Nurses take the primary role as principal investigators (PIs) in leading nursing research.
  • Clinical research is the scientific process to determine innovative techniques to detect, diagnose, treat, and prevent disease for people. Although clinical research also requires the approval of an institutional review board, clinical research is most often lead by physicians. However, nurse practitioners are also gaining momentum at PIs in clinical research. Nurses, as well as other disciplines, take supporting roles in clinical research.

Where does the confusion stem from? Nurses are introduced to nursing research and EBP in nursing school. Students learn nursing theory, how to evaluate the validity of research, and the basic components of nursing research. However, as a specialty, clinical research is not typically introduced unless a clinical rotation is available in a clinical trials program. The purpose of an undergraduate nursing program is to provide the necessary education and experience for licensure and entry into the profession. Programs simply do not have time to introduce every specialty, but when a curriculum includes nursing research and EBP without mention of clinical research, it is easy to overlook or confuse this important and rewarding career option.

Adding further confusion is the lack of consistency of titling the roles in clinical research. Some clinical research coordinators are nurses, but others not. ONS prefers the term clinical trial nurses, whereas other organizations such as the International Association of Clinical Research Nurses (IACRN) use the term clinical research nurses (CRNs).

With the specialty and role title confusion it is easy to understand why clinical research sites, specifically cancer centers, have a difficult time recruiting CRNs. In fact, 60% of open CRN positions take an average of three to six months to fill, with oncology CRNs taking as long as nine months to a year.

How to Get Involved

Where do we go from here? As oncology nurses, connect with your clinical research colleagues. Learn about the clinical trials taking place in your organization and how you can help support those patients. Connect with sister organizations like the IACRN, the Association of Clinical Research Professionals, or the Society of Clinical Research Associates to learn more about clinical research.

Start clinical research career campaigns in your organization by offering nursing student rotations in clinical research. Nursing students can be exposed to the many nursing roles in clinical research beyond the CRN role. For example, HonorHealth, in Scottsdale, AZ, employs oncology nurses in its clinical trial infusion clinic, oncology clinical trials nurse navigators, oncology nurse practitioners as investigators, oncology nurses as project managers, and administrative research leaders.

The unfortunate myth in the healthcare industry is that clinical research roles do not involve direct patient care. However, nurses who thrive on feeling this personal connection to their work need not worry about losing this powerful motivator in the clinical research setting. Just as with other disciplines, clinical research offers nurses ample opportunity to impact the lives of patients for the better, while developing innovative solutions that can saves lives not only today, but for years to come.