Regional consortium gives IRBs venue for information

St. Louis-area IRBs discuss common issues

Four times a year, staff and board members from IRBs around the St. Louis area get together to talk about the issues that concern them, in an effort to learn from each other and to jointly sponsor educational programs.

The St. Louis IRB Consortium, begun about four years ago by Washington University in St. Louis, includes a wide range of institutions, including large research universities and hospitals, and smaller, more specialized IRBs such as one from a local chiropractic college.

Members take turns hosting meetings, which revolve around set topics that the host institution or others have been struggling with, says Sarah Fowler-Dixon Frankel, PhD, education specialist for the human studies committee at Washington University.

"Conflict of interest, pros and cons of becoming accredited, vulnerable populations, quality assurance/quality improvement programs — whatever the IRB is grappling with at that time or things that are coming up that we think are interesting," Frankel says. "Speakers are usually free; we pull them from our own institutions."

The consortium recently was honored by the Health Improvement Institute with a 2005 Award for Excellence in Human Research Protection, Best Practice Division.

Michelle Reznicek, RN, MBA, JD, campus IRB compliance officer for behavioral and social science research at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says the consortium meetings have been invaluable for IRB members and staff at her institution — even considering the two-hour drive to St. Louis from her university’s Columbia, MO, campus.

She notes that some of the resources provided by the consortium, including an OHRP discussion a few years ago that featured OHRP Director Bernard Schwetz, would normally require an expensive trip to a national conference.

"We try to attend as many events as we can and they’re usually on the East Coast and the West Coast," Reznicek says. "Our boards are pretty big, and when you’re trying to send a lot of members to keep them current on information, it’s nice to have that educational opportunity that close to you.

"The St. Louis consortium has provided a venue right here in the Midwest to share experiences, to have access to government oversight agency members and also just to keep abreast of what is going on in the industry."

Inspired by Kansas City example

Frankel says her interest in a consortium was piqued when she was invited to Kansas City to attend a meeting of an IRB consortium there.

"They were drawing from quite a radius around Kansas City," she says. "There were different IRB professionals, committee members, chairs, and they were discussing some pretty timely topics.

"We liked the idea," Frankel says. "They actually invited us to join their consortium, but Kansas City is about four hours from here, a little far. So we thought it might be a nice idea to do the same thing here in St. Louis."

Washington University had previously conducted a joint town hall meeting on IRB issues with St. Louis University, the local Veterans’ Administration and St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. The group decided to use money left over from that event to begin a local IRB consortium.

Frankel says she invited IRBs from throughout the St. Louis area to join and attend meetings, which originally were rather informal, without a set topic for each meeting.

At first, it was slow going, she says. "At the first meeting, we only had one other institution that showed up. But we just went ahead and kept holding meetings. And the conclusion we came to was that in St. Louis, they wanted the meetings to be a little more formal. So now, we always have a scheduled speaker and topic, and we wrote a charter and developed a brochure."

She says that interest began to pick up after that.

Members now include the original institutions, the University of Missouri, Logan College of Chiropractic in nearby Chesterfield, MO, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, about a half-hour from St. Louis. Each member has an opportunity to host meetings at its own institution, on a topic of its choosing.

While the size and focus of the member institutions is quite varied, Frankel and Reznicek see that variety as an advantage. Frankel notes, for example, that the chiropractic college had done a lot of research with supplements, something her own institution didn’t have much experience with.

"Other institutions might have other types of research or they might see more of it than we do," she says. "That’s why whoever the host institution is gets to pick the topic. We can learn from each other."

Reznicek says that while the health sciences IRBs at the University of Missouri and Washington University are fairly comparable, her own institution has a higher volume of social-behavioral research.

"I’ve been able to share with them my experiences because theirs is significantly smaller than our behavioral and social science side," she says. "They’ve been able to share with us a lot of their medical because theirs is comparable to ours. It’s been a good partnership. I think when you’re sharing information in a compliance industry, it’s all valuable."

Meetings are held quarterly, and usually begin at 4 p.m. They last about 90 minutes. "We’ve had meetings run as long as 6 p.m., but 1½ hours seems to be the best. If it does go more than two hours, it’s because they happen to be getting into their discussion."

The host institution provides the venue and light refreshments. So far, the consortium has been able to operate without using up the seed money left over from the town hall event, Frankel says.

She says the University of Missouri hosted a meeting a few years ago, to show members its new paperless IRB software system. "They did come down and we did a presentation for them so they could see what it was like," she says. And when her own institution faced accreditation, she could use other consortium members as a resource to help her know what to expect.

"That’s what a consortium does for you — it saves you from reinventing the wheel in areas where somebody else has already brainstormed," Reznicek says. "You can tailor it to your own needs but you might not duplicate efforts."

Barbara Woodson, IRB administrator at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis, has been attending consortium meetings for about a year and half.

She says that while she’s been with the consortium only a short while, she’s found the consortium useful for some purposes. However, in contrast with Frankel’s observations, Woodson says she’d like to see some meetings less focused on a scheduled presentation and more on informal brainstorming about problems the member IRBs face. "It’s great to have presentations and bring in speakers, but I’d like to see us get together over coffee and talk," she says.

Keeping it going

Frankel says it can be a challenge keeping an organization like the St. Louis IRB Consortium running. "Washington University has always been the point person," she says. "Even when things weren’t that formalized and there wasn’t much interest, we kept scheduling meetings and sending out notices."

Reznicek says a consortium needs to bring as many local players to the table as possible, to encourage wide participation. She says even small institutions should be encouraged to actively participate, including hosting their own meetings.

"Sometimes they don’t realize that they have valuable information that even a large institution has encountered," Reznicek says.

"Anybody out there who really wants to set the standard should actively engage in and form a consortium," she says. "It will save you and allows you to have a more efficient review system, I can tell you that."