(Reporter’s Notebook) Clinical trial successes in Korea threatened by government policies and staff shortages

The recent ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) 2024 Annual Meeting prominently showcased the commitment and achievements of Korean researchers.

Many Korean researchers took the stage to present groundbreaking discoveries and serve as lead authors in various global clinical trials.

This increase in representation demonstrates Korea’s growing position in the global medical research community.

Data from the Korea National Clinical Research Enterprise (KoNECT) underscore this achievement.

As of May 9, KoNECT reported that Korea had climbed to an unprecedented fourth place globally in new pharmaceutical clinical trials, overtaking Australia.

In particular, Seoul overtook major cities such as Beijing, Miami, Shanghai and Madrid to secure a top spot in urban clinical trials.

Despite a global decline in the total number of clinical trials from 4,729 in 2022 to 4,470 in the previous year, Korea recorded a 9.03% increase in the number of clinical trials.

Additionally, Korea rose to 10th place in international clinical trial rankings, the highest among Asian countries.

These achievements, which the government likes to brag about, purport to demonstrate Korea’s key role as a leader in clinical research.

While officials celebrate the country’s high rankings and progress, they seem oblivious to the underlying problems that threaten those very achievements.

It is worth noting that this triumph was not achieved by the government alone. Korean hospital professors, regardless of their reputation in Korea, must constantly cooperate with international pharmaceutical companies to promote their institutions and the country as an excellent clinical research location.

This tireless support has greatly improved treatment options for Korean patients. Given that access to new medicines in Korea is slower compared to other developed countries, these efforts address the country’s unmet medical needs.

However, recent government policies to increase medical school admissions and the resulting attrition of medical residents have jeopardized these efforts. Oncology professors at ASCO have warned that Korea’s clinical trial infrastructure, carefully built over the years, is now at risk.

“The clinical infrastructure we have built over the years feels like it is falling apart,” one oncologist noted to the Korea Biomedical Review during an interview at the ASCO annual meeting. “As major hospitals limit surgeries on their wards, the number of hospitalized patients participating in clinical trials is decreasing.” She added that professors, overwhelmed by ambulatory care responsibilities, are leaving their jobs, further complicating patient care and clinical trial management.

The professor emphasized that despite the cooperative nature of clinical trials covering various medical specialties, the entire situation is worsened by widespread staff shortages.

Another professor added that managing drug side effects, which is crucial in clinical trials, is also at risk due to the overwhelming outpatient and trial workload.

“Any delay in patient care could have fatal consequences,” he said. “We are concerned that such issues and the fear of failing to meet recruitment criteria for pivotal clinical trials may prompt international pharmaceutical companies to reduce the number and scope of trials conducted in Korea.”

Losing such hard-earned trust would be a serious blow, and regaining it would be an even greater challenge, he added.

Another professor criticized the lack of a plan to address such problems.

“Despite the government promoting Korea’s achievements in clinical trials, there appears to be a lack of attention to the current crisis,” the professor said. “Recent statements by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the National Assembly do not address these issues.”

The disconnect between public perception and reality is disheartening, as the public has recently criticized these dedicated researchers as greedy and indifferent to patients’ needs amid the recent controversy over increasing medical school admissions.

Even amidst such adversity, professors who walked more than 30,000 steps a day at this year’s ASCO meeting continue to meet with global pharmaceutical companies in an effort to bring new treatments to Korean patients.

Moreover, they constantly received updates on their patients back home, and many planned to see patients immediately after returning to Korea, having no time to adjust to the time difference.

Their unwavering commitment stands in stark contrast to the public’s perception of them as indifferent.

The government and society must recognize and support these efforts. The future of Korea’s position in global clinical trials and access to innovative medicines depends on it.