In lean times, staffing decisions are crucial

Make lemonade out of economic lemons

Clinical research sites have a greater need than ever to find precisely the right people for the clinical trial coordinator and other research jobs. The continued economic downturn has resulted in research institutions cutting staff to the bare minimum, which means that every working hour has to count.

On the positive side, there have been some new opportunities for finding the best employees, says Brian C. Springer, MHA, executive vice president of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY.

"Pharmaceutical companies have been losing positions too, dealing with the economy," Springer says. "This often can be a gain to the academic institution because it means there are a lot of really talented people out in the workforce who need jobs."

Often investigators need exactly the sort of experience and talent that can be found in pharmaceutical companies.

"For example, Washington University in St. Louis had job fairs for people coming from pharma who needed jobs," Springer says. "These forums brought together faculty and leaders with people displaced from pharma."

The pharmaceutical company's loss was the research institution's gain, he adds.

Research sites have higher expectations for their study coordinators now. The job is more difficult as subject enrollment has become challenging in the Internet era.

"Studies have been a lot harder to enroll, and patients are more educated than they were 15 years ago," says Wanda Kay North, PhD, MBA, RN, CCRC, CIM, manager of The Center for Clinical Research at St. Joseph's/Candler Health System in Savannah, GA.

"If you ask them to participate in a study they'll go on the web and get more information about the study, so it's not as easy to enroll people as it used to be," North explains. "We still have the crunch to enroll patients, but it's tougher now."

The other pressure is that staffing positions are reduced from the better economic days, and each person hired has to be more productive. North has had as many as six coordinators, but now has three coordinators on staff.

"You struggle," she says. "One thing I've realized over the years is that not everyone has what it takes to be a coordinator; it takes a special person."

Another strategy for finding high performance research staff is to look carefully from within an organization.

"Research organizations might be restructuring their offices, which sometimes gives us an opportunity find employees looking for different positions," Springer says. "From a human resources perspective, you win when you hire from within, and you do that less expensively than when you hire someone new."

Clinical research sites also need to be cognizant of making the best use of investigators' time.

"We try to facilitate research with our investigators so they can be as effective and efficient as possible," Springer says.

Another way research sites can make good use of staff time is through centralization. Not all research organizations have centralized CR services, but when these are available, they often work well.

"Instead of each investigator having their two data people and two clinical research nurses, it might be better to have a shared resource for some clinical trial services," Springer suggests.

"By having a shared resource we can be effective and fill people's time with work, and if there are changes in the workload that are associated with the study, and one investigator gets busy or busier, then we can allocate people to that task without having to hire additional people," he explains. "It's like the idea behind modular lab space."

Having centralized CR services provides a CR site with a group of skilled, hard-working people in clinical trials who are able to work on different studies as the workload changes, he adds.

Centralized services can produce higher quality and more efficiency, and it raises the bar on expectations.

"Some of the economic pressure can be good in helping us get to a more efficient model where we close studies that are not performing and give greater scrutiny to new studies coming in so that we're more selective," Springer says.