Clinical Research / Monitoring

4 Tips for Effective Communication with your Clinical Research Partners in a Virtual World

By Allison Billups on May, 7 2021

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Allison Billups

Allison Billups is VP of Business Development at Advanced Clinical. Allison has served in the clinical research industry for over 20 years working for multiple contract research organizations (CROs) and directly for a large pharmaceutical company. She has held multiple Business Development positions within Advanced Clinical. Previous positions have included Sales Leader, Team Leader, Account Manager, & Pharmaceutical Sales Representative. Allison has a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing from Florida State University.

The shift to a virtual business, and clinical trial, environment created significant disruption across all aspects of clinical research. During the early months of the pandemic, the industry was focused on the essentials – how to keep clinical trials moving forward using telehealth and remote monitoring while ensuring patient safety and data integrity.

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Now that the pandemic has lasted for more than a year, it’s time to reflect on what we have learned as a business development team who interfaces with our customers daily and how we can improve our communication going forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that hybrid, virtual, and decentralized clinical trials can generate significant time and cost savings while eliminating barriers to patient participation. However, we have also learned that the old ways of engaging in this environment may no longer be as effective. From building rapport with site staff to capturing clinical trial data, conducting site monitoring, and reporting results to stakeholders – the channels we use to communicate with sponsors, sites, and patients needed to evolve.

Advanced Clinical has conducted several hybrid clinical trials in the past year and in that time our team has experienced even more daily exchanges with our clients. From this experience, we have identified four best practices for nurturing better communication in virtual world:

      1. Be more intentional about engagement. In a virtual world, it is much more challenging to get a sense of what is happening in the research environment. For example, when CRAs aren’t visiting sites and individual teams are working remotely, there may be room for missed signals and lost context. Or, if a colleague has not responded to a query, it may be difficult to know if they are ignoring you or dealing with a personal or professional situation that may be preventing them from responding effectively.

        To close those gaps, you need to replace casual connections with more intentional communication. Think about all the times you spoke informally with an individual or team in pre-pandemic days, then find virtual alternatives like setting a daily stand up meeting with vital staff, connecting via Microsoft Teams, or other platform, or text, to check-in, or setting expectations for when you will respond (or expect a response) to requests. These intentional efforts help simulate real-world connectivity in a disconnected world.
      1. Choose channels that work for everyone. There is no shortage of tools to support virtual communication, but not every site, sponsor, and CRA is willing or able to use them. For example, some organizations don’t allow employees to use Zoom or Google Meet for meetings because they have not yet validated these platforms as safe for communicating secure data. In other cases, local regulations may prohibit the use of remote monitoring because it conflicts with patient data privacy laws, and sites may struggle with insufficient connectivity that interferes with video calls. All of these issues can be easily avoided by establishing technology strategies before a trial begins that take into account the preferences and platforms that make the most sense for every participant.
      1. Don’t expect 24/7 connectivity. When communicating virtually, it may be easy to assume everyone is always available. But if you pester people with questions, emails, and ‘quick calls’ during off-business hours, it can lead to stress, frustration, and a high rate of turnover. One 2020 survey found 76% of U.S. employees say they are currently experiencing burnout, and among millennial workers, nearly half report having left a job (in the past) because they felt burned out.

        It’s important to set clear communication boundaries for yourself and your team. That includes being thoughtful about who genuinely needs to be in a Zoom meeting, and whether that information could be just as easily shared in an email. And when possible, limit off-hour communications to emergencies and set realistic expectations for response. While an adverse event may demand a middle of the night phone call, a question about recruiting trends can probably wait until the next day. You may want people to respond immediately to every question, but you’ll have a more positive and productive team if you show them that you respect their time.
      1. It’s okay to get personal. Before the pandemic it was taboo to talk about personal issues in professional settings. But in the age of remote work and forced homeschooling, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about our colleagues’ children, pets, and weekend plans. The key to clinical research is building trusting relationships between sponsors, CROs, support professionals, and site staff. Sharing personal stories and asking questions about a person’s family life can help create those connections – even when we get back to working face-to-face.

Virtual and hybrid trials are going to be a permanent part of the research landscape, therefore we must adapt our methods in order to obtain the most value from this approach. Setting clear expectations at the start of the trial about how often you will connect, what channels you will use, and when immediate response is required, will help you avoid miscommunications while building a more engaged research team.

 

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