The IRB of Capella University of Minneapolis had a big advantage over its peers when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced research institutions to move operations and meetings to virtual space.
“We are a solely online university, so we’ve only functioned with an online IRB,” says Angela L. Bruch, PhD, senior core faculty and university IRB chair of Capella University. Bruch was a scheduled speaker at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research 2020 virtual IRB Conference on July 30.
“I feel like once people go to virtual meetings, they won’t ever want to go back,” she says. “It is so efficient in terms of a meeting space. I am a strong advocate for it.”
The Capella IRB consists of 10 members from seven states and several time zones. Meetings are held weekly, except during quarter breaks.
“We’re always navigating unique opportunities or weather differences,” Bruch says. “For community members, we look for someone who is a more national citizen.”
At quarterly business meetings, the IRB focuses on the meeting structure and how to maximize time to place most of the focus on studies, she says.
“We’ve worked hard to create an open and responsive approach so there’s a quick turnaround on review,” Bruch says. “Researchers have an open access point to meet with the point person on a study and with me about the decision letter.”
Virtual meetings can include teleconferences and videoconferences, but either method can work. “We hold our IRB meetings in the online space, and a number of the things we do to make sure,” Bruch says. “We only use a phone line. We do not do the Zoom process.”
Once an IRB chair hones skills for virtual meetings, it can be a rewarding experience, she notes. “I’ve done this for so many years, and I actually like the online environment because it removes some of the intimidation of body language,” Bruch says. “There is no eye-rolling or arms crossed in front and furrowed brows,” she explains. “It removes all of that in your decision-making. You rely totally on the tenor of the verbal discourse.” (See story on building rapport without handshakes in this issue.)
The entire board shares documents for any study they will review before the meeting. “The IRB team reviews all materials and asks questions in advance,” she adds.
Bruch offers these best practices on operating IRB’s virtual meetings:
• Impose structure. “Something I learned early on as chair of the board is that I needed to find a way to impose structure, something very predictable, in the virtual meetings,” Bruch explains. “We have evolved and tweaked our meetings. We started with a semi-structured approach to each review, using federal guidelines.”
Every meeting proceeds in the same order by following the guidelines and using a modified Roberts Rule of Order. “Our approach is to start with the study, calling for a motion of the study to be put into discussion,” Bruch says. “We begin with concerns about the design of the study, the risk-benefit ratio, and then we move into recruitment of participants.”
Each study follows the same routine. This part of the meeting immediately follows the roll call and approval of the previous meeting’s minutes.
“We go through studies in the order in which they were received in case we run out of time,” Bruch says. “Generally, the meetings end at two hours. If we’re just minutes from voting on a study, we’ll buy five extra minutes and maintain quorum.”
The board has grown accustomed to the two-hour meetings and will say they can send their redlining notes offline or make a motion to table something to the next week, she adds.
“When someone gets off on a tangent or commands too much of the floor, it’s my job as chair to reel them back in,” Bruch says. “I will say, ‘I think we heard that point, let’s go on. If you don’t feel like it’s been addressed, we can continue.’”
Then, Bruch will return to the pontificator to make sure they feel their point was heard.
“As you do online meetings, you become more savvy as to who your membership is and those personalities,” she says.
• Follow best practices with minutes. “We follow all federal guidelines and regulations,” Bruch says.
First, there is a roll call to ensure quorum is maintained. “We do not record any of our minutes,” Bruch notes. “Our IRB specialist is assigned as the minutes-taker. He types minutes as they unfold.”
Bruch also takes notes by hand at each meeting. She compares the meeting minutes with her own.
“We post minutes within 24 hours of every meeting so board members can go in and look at those,” she says. “Our first action of every meeting is a motion to approve or amend the minutes.”
The minutes are about 1.5 pages of condensed notes for each study, the study’s discussion, and motions.
• Invite guests, as needed. “If we have a prison study, we will have a prison representative that attends and serves as a voting member for prison studies,” Bruch explains. “If we have a study that is unusual, internationally, we have an international expert as a consultant. Sometimes, we have a topic that is very new and cutting-edge. We invite an expert to inform the board so we have a deeper understanding of the subject.”
• Meet with investigators outside of meetings. Investigators rarely attend meetings, but they meet via teleconference with someone from the IRB after the board’s vote, Bruch says.
“We have a separate process where an IRB point person and an IRB specialist meet with the investigator and their research supervisor to go through our decision letter and talk through the study,” she explains. “We make sure we’re all on the same page about what we ask as an IRB, and we make sure we didn’t misunderstand something.”
Clearly explaining decisions in a letter and talking with investigators helps improve the IRB-researcher relationship. “Because we’re solely online and so much can get lost in translation, we think we wrote a brilliant decision letter,” Bruch says. “We find having an open opportunity for the researcher to talk with us creates a good relationship with the IRB, and that is paramount to our success as a board.”
• Keep technical issues to minimum. The IRB asks members to make sure they are in quiet spaces before they enter the meeting teleconference. This helps reduce distracting background noise and conversations.
“We ask that they not use speakerphone,” Bruch says. “We have those moments, like everyone does, where it would be helpful if they could be on mute.”
If someone forgets to unmute when they are asked to comment, Bruch will remind the person he or she still is on mute and no one can hear them. “It adds a little levity to the moment,” she says.
Sometimes, a member will drop the call and then have to call back in. For instance, one member’s call ended when a lightning strike hit a cell tower in the member’s area, she recalls.
“If there’s quorum, we can continue even if we lose one of the board members on the call,” Bruch says. “If there’s not quorum, we’ll table that until next week; but it’s very unusual that we have super significant issues.”