Four steps for CROs embarking on a permanent digital transformation

Views & Analysis

With remote working looking like it will continue post-COVID and beyond, organisation are looking to make a permenant switch to digital. Within3 CEO, Lance Hill shares four best practices Contract Research Organisations (CROs) should consider as they embark on a digital journey.

The events of 2020 changed how the life sciences industry works – possibly forever.

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, some CROs sensitive to the cost and environmental impact of global business travel were already choosing to conduct virtual interactions with patients, HCPs, advisory boards, monitors and more. However, traditional CRO practices depended on in-person access and regular travel. In fact, the reliance on in-person activity enabled a heavy use of paper documents. As such, digital transformations were low on most CROs’ business agenda.

Disruption caused by COVID-19 suddenly meant CROs were trying to get operations back up and running – virtually. At the peak of the pandemic, clinical research decreased by around 87%, according to research by University College London. Restarting trials was an industry-wide priority.

While the pandemic accelerated the adoption of virtual engagements, it also fundamentally changed the way engagement will be undertaken going forward. Life sciences companies will increasingly look to virtual solutions to effectively engage a wider range of stakeholders.

For CROs that had to put short-term solutions in place to manage the immediate impact of COVID-19, the long-term conversion to virtual can seem daunting. But setting up a reliable way to do business online isn’t just a short-term solution to immediate needs – it’s a sound investment for the future.

Below are four best practices that will enable your team to make the switch to virtual, seamlessly and permanently.

The familiar may not be the most effective

Video conferences are even more common than traditional phone calls these days. Because of their ease and familiarity, it feels like an easy solution to replace in-person events with video calls. However, video conferences are not the right venue for every type of meeting. Many live meetings don’t translate well to webcasts.

Consider the challenges for different stakeholders:

  • HCPs are busier than ever, and might not be available for a one-time event
  • Strong personalities may dominate, meaning some voices won’t be heard – this is amplified on a virtual setting where the option is between addressing everyone or nobody
  • Global meetings present barriers across time zones, language, or variable access to the internet

Simply put, it’s not enough to just convert a live meeting to a video conference. Consider using a platform that allows asynchronous communication – allowing individuals to participate when their schedule allows.

Invest in change management

If a new virtual venue is selected, team leaders should develop a communication plan, so everyone knows what’s involved with changing formats. Similarly, once participants are enlisted for an asynchronous virtual meeting or event, teams should promptly reach out and share adequate information about what to expect.

If you’re unsure about how to communicate these changes, don’t hesitate to ask your virtual engagement platform for guidance. They’ll have lots of experience helping get teams oriented to new workflows.

“While the pandemic accelerated the adoption of virtual engagements, it also fundamentally changed the way engagement will be undertaken going forward. Life sciences companies will increasingly look to virtual solutions to effectively engage a wider range of stakeholders”

Maintain everyone’s engagement

Most professionals would be familiar with an all-day event, but these meetings aren’t without interruptions. Sessions are often offered in 45-minute increments, breaks for coffee and lunch, and time set aside for networking. These events keep your interest by changing the topic often and building in time to wind down or regroup.

Virtual meetings should follow the same cadence. A virtual meeting can take place over a period of days or even weeks and include content broken down into shorter sections, with the opportunity to provide focused feedback after each topic. Relying on a single approach for each part of your virtual meeting will be too repetitive.

Platforms designed for maximising virtual engagement offer built-in features such as different question types, surveys, and document annotation or collaboration to keep participants actively engaged. Periodic digest emails are used to remind participants to come back to the meeting and respond to new questions or comments.

Keep what works, lose what doesn’t

Virtual interaction can make us keenly aware of what we can’t have – the opportunity to see one another and feel the energy of our colleagues discussing a common interest. Webcasts can provide some of this personal touch, so if your team prefers a verbal presentation, consider recording a webcast and making it available on-demand to anyone who can’t attend live. Webcasts work in tandem with asynchronous meetings in many situations, including advisory board meetings, steering committees, focus groups, patient appointments and HCP working groups.

Similarly, if one group of stakeholders prefer a webcast and another prefers logging on to review a document in their own time, adapt your engagement strategies accordingly.

Virtual meetings, once considered a nice-to-have, have become an essential tool in keeping trials running. The benefits of a temporary “virtual only” policy may persist as a “virtual first” approach. With thoughtful virtual venue selection, CROs can address the challenges of the present and establish a path for future success.

About the author

Lance Hill is chief executive officer of software communications company Within3. Prior to joining Within3, Hill was vice president and general manager of webMethods' worldwide Service Oriented Architecture software business. Before joining webMethods, he served as the vice president of Enterprise Engineering and later founded the Fusion Technology Group at National City Corporation - a super regional banking firm with over $140 billion in assets under management.