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Healthcare executives must prioritize strategies that help overcome the resource challenges facing clinical research departments.
Sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing Great Resignation has impacted most industries, but few are feeling the effects more than the healthcare sector.
A report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics highlighted healthcare as among the top three industries when it comes to the "quit rate," behind only accommodation and retail trade. According to federal data, more than 500,000 people quit their healthcare jobs in December 2021.
The toll COVID-19 is taking on frontline healthcare workers has been well documented. The long hours and surge of patients have exhausted physicians and nurses both physically and mentally, causing many to leave their careers in favor of positions that offer reduced exposure to pandemic stressors.
However, care delivery is not the only area of healthcare being adversely affected by COVID-19 and the Great Resignation. Clinical research is also suffering, a development that can have significant downstream repercussions for research sites, industry sponsors, and ultimately patients, if not addressed head-on.
COVID's unspoken impact on clinical research
While not as widely discussed as the challenges facing frontline workers, clinical researchers are also grappling with burnout and other obstacles.
During the public health crisis, there has been a significant emphasis placed on COVID-related research demands. The pandemic has also made it significantly more challenging for investigators and coordinators at sites to physically monitor the patients involved in their studies, compounding frustrations.
Moreover, because many research coordinators have a nursing background, research departments are one of the first places health systems tap to address pressing nursing shortages; redeploying researchers to meet patient care needs. This departmental cannibalization contributes directly to research staffing shortages. Additionally, the compound effect of all these factors can cause researchers to feel forgotten or unimportant to the larger institution, triggering additional turnover in the department.
It's important to note that research staffing shortages have both short-term and long-term repercussions for healthcare institutions.
The short-term impact is that fewer resources can be allocated to driving research, making it difficult or impossible for research sites to take on new study opportunities. The downstream effects include longer data-generation timelines as well as slower regulatory review and approval cycles.
Ultimately, the inability to conduct clinical research impedes the academic mission of a healthcare institution and prevents it from participating in studies that provide patients with access to the latest therapies, negatively impacting the institution’s brand and the quality of care it can deliver.
With this in mind, healthcare executives must prioritize strategies that help overcome the resource challenges facing clinical research departments. Fortunately, there are some steps healthcare institutions can take to minimize the impact these shortages have on the research function of the organization.
Below are three effective strategies to mitigate clinical research staffing issues at healthcare organizations.
1. Make life easier for researchers and patients
Schedule flexibility and remote work are becoming key determinants of job satisfaction and will likely be a mainstay in the workforce of the future.
While these elements are relatively straightforward to implement in the fields of business and information technology, enabling them in certain areas of healthcare — specifically clinical research — can be more complicated.
There are, and will continue to be, aspects of clinical research that must be location-based. That said, certain aspects of research coordinators' workflow can be performed remotely with the right enabling technologies.
Adopting a hybrid location-based or decentralized model can reduce stress as well as ensure employees are more productive and feel more valued.
A reassessment of the way research is conducted should not be limited to researchers and study coordinators but extend to patients, too. By implementing mechanisms to empower patients to complete some tasks at home, healthcare organizations can improve patient satisfaction and remove barriers to participation, such as travel time and other logistical challenges.
2. Lean into technology
While innovations like telemedicine are being deployed to help with direct patient care, technology can also be implemented to help streamline clinical research workflows.
Healthcare leaders need to understand the pain points associated with the clinical research job function and seek out technology solutions that can help reduce these issues while maximizing the effectiveness of the limited resources on staff.
Though some solutions such as electronic patient consent, telemedicine for simple study visits, and remote data capture have been available for a period of time, COVID-19 catalyzed their use and adoption for clinical research.
At times during the pandemic, study personnel were not allowed in clinics and many patients were instructed not to attend clinics in person. This severely limited the ability to conduct research and often required the creative deployment of technology just to keep clinical studies active.
With that experience top of mind, institutions should continue to leverage technologies that proved to be effective during COVID-19 and embrace additional opportunities to use technology to simultaneously reduce the burden on staff and patients.
3. Look for opportunities to build on previous investments
During the last decade, most health systems made significant investments to implement electronic health record (EHR) systems. With the increased use of EHRs, there is growing interest and opportunity to leverage information captured through the normal course of patient care to accelerate research.
Some types of research can rely solely on data already collected by the healthcare institution, minimizing the effort required to participate in studies while still ensuring patient privacy.
For prospective studies, connectivity to EHR data can be used to help research personnel streamline patient identification, outreach, and study enrollment. In both cases, EHR connectivity can simplify tedious steps in the research process, allowing fewer resources to be more productive with less effort.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized weaknesses in healthcare's collective work environments and shed light on what employees truly value. Employers must learn from this experience and restructure their workforces to attract and retain valued resources.
For the industry, this means not only addressing the wants and needs of frontline caregivers but examining the issues facing clinical research and the healthcare workforce at large.
Process reorganization and technology adoption are among the most effective ways to introduce more flexibility and convenience into clinical research functions, easing the burden on study coordinators and keeping healthcare innovation moving forward.
Tom Kaminski is chief executive officer of Clinetic, a health technology company aiming to utilize the potential of electronic health record data to advance clinical research.