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Improving site-to-staff/PI/doctor relations is key
Enhance staff and MD morale
Managing a clinical research department is challenging for a variety of reasons. One of the most difficult issues involves staffing communication and retention.
Also, research sites need to develop relationships with physicians in the community who might become study referral sources.
The key is improving communication skills and strategies, says Linda Sherriff, RN, MHA, CCRC, a research coordinator at Columbia Cardiology in Columbia, SC. Sherriff also has served as department manager over clinical trials, overseeing research coordinators, regulatory coordinators, and others at a large health care institution.
Research sites should keep lines of communication open with investigators and develop close relationships with physicians, Sherriff says.
One strategy for larger clinical trial (CT) sites would be to hold educational luncheons for the department or hospital in which a physician would speak about the clinical trial.
If study participants are recruited from the emergency department or intensive care unit (ICU), then the educational session could be held at different times to catch all shifts, Sherriff suggests.
"You could pull in nursing staff, residents, and other physicians," she says. "It helps for them to get to know the investigator, and it helps with back-and-forth communication."
Here are some other strategies for improving staff retention and satisfaction, as well as research staff-physician communication:
Find ways to enhance staff morale: One of the common management flaws that dampen staff morale involves letting employees stay in a rut.
Managers sometimes fail to use all of their staff's abilities, Sherriff says.
"Part of the problem is they do not assess employees' skills," she adds. "Also, managers might not realize that the more you can encourage others to develop professionally, the better the department would be."
Another way to improve morale is to encourage positive comments and compliments through a kudos' board.
"So if somebody did something nice then another employee would write it down and put it on the bulletin board," Sherriff says. "After a while it becomes a challenge of 'Who can think of the most positive things?'"
This type of program is particularly helpful during economic downturns when employees do not receive annual raises and some other benefits are withheld, she notes.
Identify the right people through team interviewing and team input: Sometimes the best way to ensure high staff morale is by hiring the right people in the first place. With team interviewing, a research site can more thoroughly assess a potential new employee's skills and personal attributes.
"We utilized team interviewing with each of us focused on different areas," Sherriff says. "We had a regulatory coordinator who represented the legal aspect and looked at the organizational skills."
Another person on the team had long-term research experience and assessed potential new employees' overall personality, she adds.
Employees also can help a research organization better match existing staff with their untapped skills and potential.
For example, a new employee might be hired to work in a critical care area when another nurse gets to know her and says, "Did you know she also had this background in public relations before she came into nursing?" Sherriff says.
This type of information helps a research organization better use its employees' skills and talents.
Employ the Studer method to learn more about staff: Some hospitals follow Quint Studer's rounding strategy for learning more about employees and boosting staff morale.
Studer, a chief executive officer of Studer Group, is author of the book, Hardwiring Excellence: Purpose, Worthwhile Work, Making a Difference, published in 2004 by Fire Starter Publishing. His leadership techniques include what he calls the magic of rounding.
"Each month you have rounding and talking with staff, connecting with individuals, as well as with groups," Sherriff explains. "Managers can find out what it is employees want from them and also say what it is they need, hopefully making a match."
Studer's writings describe his rounding method as having a department manager, CEO or vice president make rounds to check on the status of employees. It is about gathering information proactively and in a structured way in order to reinforce positive behaviors. More details about the method can be found at his website: www.studergroup.com.
Assess physicians' satisfaction and communication needs: Research directors might offer to meet with physician investigators on a one-by-one basis to discuss any important issues or to find out the best ways to communicate with them during ongoing trials.
"Some like emails but want you to keep it short and to the point, maybe listing the first three things you want them to do," Sherriff says. "Some just say, 'Call me.'"
When meeting with investigators, the key is to keep the agenda short and to the point.
"Go over the highlights and talk about the current study quickly," Sherriff suggests. "If there is limited time you could make sure papers are signed or the coordinator could talk with the physician, discussing site initiations, completed surveys, and asking if there's anything else they want us to do."
Twice a year, a research director could send out a satisfaction questionnaire, asking investigators how the department did, how coordinators did, and what everyone could do better, she says.
Provide adequate awards for physicians: For physicians, an organization could hold a "Doctor's Day" in which staff makes cards and cookies for them as a simple thank-you message, Sherriff says.
When physicians speak at research or department meetings, this is a way of thanking them for their time.
Also, a research division could hold monthly luncheons. These are opportunities where staff could increase their understanding and educate employees.
When physicians make referrals to studies, research departments could put their names in a hat and pick one to reward with a pizza, Sherriff suggests.
"It would be something simple and you might get approval through the IRB," she adds.
Research departments could even put up a board with doctors' names on it and starts next to their names after referrals are made. One hospital-based research site did this, and it made a big impact with physicians, she notes.
"They had little stars but were tickled," Sherriff says. "Every time they made a referral, whether or not the patient met the criteria, they'd get a star."
Enhance customer service: "In our area there are a lot of customers," Sherriff says. "They could be physicians, each other, and ancillary departments in the hospital, such as radiology and labs for some studies."
Communication strategies are needed for working with the various departments/customers.
As research departments handle studies, these have a potential impact on many different departments, and all of these people should have some knowledge and interest in the research.
When studies are complicated, the research staff could hold small group meetings with key players. Nurses, physicians, and pharmacists could provide some of the education about the research project.
At smaller sites, internal customer service is simpler.
"When you have eight physicians and a nurse practitioner, it's much easier to find time with physicians, and it's easier to get to know the doctors quickly," Sherriff says. "You're a visible face to them, so it's easier to develop a relationship."