FirstHealth is a prominent regional health system located in the Carolinas and earning widespread acclaim as a national leader in community health. They have also emerged as a superpower for clinical trials, offering a wide array of clinical trials for those that can benefit—patients from within the health system and beyond. FirstHealth and the story of Ken Hill represents the power and potential of clinical research as a care option.
Ken Hill, a patient within the FirstHealth system, went for a standard melanoma removal in 2012. The biopsy revealed that he has another kind of cancer: chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL. Mr. Hill, a father of three, was lucky he found the invading cancer cells when he did. Things remained stable from 2012 to 2015 until a scan in 2015 discovered his blood was 80% to 90% saturated with cancerous cells. In addition to an infection fighting treatment (infusions of a blood product called intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) every 28 days), his oncologist Charles Kuzma, MD, referred him to a clinical trial he might want to add to his infusion treatment.
The Clinical Trial at FirstHealth
The study combined two drugs—a non-chemotherapy drug called ibrutinib (taken orally every day) and rituximab (administered by infusion). Mr. Hill and his wife, Betty, concurred this was the right thing to do—they trusted oncologist Dr. Kuzma’s opinion and recommendation. After 8 months of the combined therapy in the study, Hill’s cancer cell saturation was reduced to 40% to 50%. Presently 27 months later, the measurements have gone down even further to 20% to 30%. He will maintain this regimen until his situation changes or the end of the clinical trial, which is 2025.
Clinical Research as a Care Option
Ken Hill’s wife, Betty, a dynamic partner supporting her husband’s quest for fighting the cancer, quoted to the Laurinburg Exchange, “We feel blessed that this clinical trial was available in Pinehurst and that Ken was chosen for it.” The study’s sponsor has paid for the costs, affording select patients the opportunity to not only receive the best care but also the most advanced investigational therapies.
Dr. Kuzma was the key first step; as Mr. Hill’s oncologist, there was a relationship, respect and trust. The Hill’s feel incredibly fortunate. The study’s sponsor covers the cost of the study, affording in many cases those that wouldn’t have the means to participate in what very well could be a life-saving and extending study. The Hills are now engaged in giving back to spread the work of clinical research as a care option. As Betty Hill stated to the local paper, “We want to be an encouragement for others.” They now serve on the FirstHealth Cancer Services’ Cancer Advocacy Advisory Board, a peer group sponsored by the Southeast Clinical Oncology Research Consortium.
FirstHealth of the Carolinas is a private, not-for-profit health care network headquartered in Pinehurst, NC. With nearly 5,000 employees, it serves 15 counties in the mid-Carolinas. It has licensed for four hospitals with 610 beds, with a focus on holistic community health services with an emphasis on those in need. Its organizational culture is guided by its Core Purpose and Core Values and is committed to patient safety, quality, and performance excellence.
FirstHealth conducts more clinical trials than similar sized regional health systems. This program was instrumental in supporting Mr. Hills’ well-being. They run trials in a wide array of therapeutic area.