One long-time virtual IRB has learned how to develop camaraderie and rapport among IRB members without ever meeting in person — or seeing each other’s faces.

“It’s incumbent on the IRB to create safe space for members of the board to speak their minds,” 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.

An IRB chair can facilitate this safe space in a virtual arena, whether it is a teleconference or videoconference. Methods include acknowledging people by name, encouraging everyone to contribute, and to follow up meetings with emails or phone calls.

Take Handwritten Notes

Bruch takes handwritten notes during meetings and jots down what board members say about each study. These help her keep track of who is talking and what concerned each member.

“Handwritten notes are more effective for most people in terms of learning and memory,” she says. “I have volumes of notes. It serves me well, especially if we have to review the notes to put myself back to this meeting.”

Using her notes, Bruch will repeat some of the comments, using it as an opportunity to ensure IRB members feel like their opinions and points are acknowledged.

“Calling out names, especially as we have reflection and recitation of what we discussed, initially was a reminder of who said what and making sure everyone’s voice was heard,” Bruch notes. “I feel like, as the chair, I have to be on top of what exactly has been said. It’s my responsibility to capture the tenor of the meeting and make sure everybody has been heard.”

Even without the benefit of body language, Bruch has learned to read people’s moods. “I can recognize their voices,” she explains. “I can recognize the sigh of someone on the phone, and I’ll say, ‘I’m hearing a little concern here; let’s talk about that a little bit. I think I hear Mary’s voice on this.’”

Ensure Everyone Is Heard

Bruch ensures everyone has been heard in the meeting. If someone has not contributed much or anything during the meeting, Bruch will check in with the person, saying, “Mary, I feel like you were quieter than usual. Did we miss anything?”

It is a good device to use to keep track of everyone, Bruch says. “You want relationships to develop among the board so you feel safe to speak your mind. That comes with a level of comfort and respect for one another,” Bruch says.

“If a meeting gives us a last couple of minutes at the end, I will make minor commentary,” she continues. “I might know someone had a grandchild or someone has a new home and is moving. I will mention that in the meeting, and it creates some of those connecting points.”

It is important to establish a collegial relationship and dialogue during the meeting. “We treat each study as a sacred space where we discuss the study and have no offline, behind-the-scenes discussion,” Bruch says.

To keep things moving along, the chair needs to jump in to steer discussion back to topic.

Managing an IRB meeting virtually might feel a little like Double Dutch jump rope where someone is trying to jump between two sets of quickly swinging ropes, Bruch notes. “I’ve become more comfortable over the years with just butting in. You know there are members of the group where a certain study will hit on their passion point.”

For instance, someone might raise the flag on readability levels, or the researcher’s documentation. In these cases, the chair might need to jump in and bring discussion back to topics necessitated by the regulations. When a board forms a rapport and members work well together, this should not cause a problem.

“We have such a special board, where even if there is a little pique or frustration, it is so respectful,” Bruch says. “Sometimes, I say we’ve moved a little bit afield, so let’s reel it back in, and then come back to Thomas and say, ‘I promise we’ll come back. I’ll make sure you feel comfortable about this after we discuss the guidelines for our review.’”

Bruch will keep her promise, returning later to the discussion, repeating the member’s concerns, and asking the board if they missed any points in the discussion.

When even these measures do not do the trick, Bruch will follow up with the unhappy board member after the meeting. “If, after a meeting, I feel like someone was frustrated with how a decision went, I will circle around to make sure that person felt heard,” Bruch says. “I start with an email and say, ‘I appreciate you were the dissenting vote on this study, and I want to make sure you felt like you were heard. Is this something we need to think about for future studies? Do you want to talk on the phone a little bit about this?’”

The point is to keep the dialogue open. “Our IRB has been static in membership for four years now, so we know each other really well,” Bruch says.