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As COVID-19’s first wave crested and broke, the need for clinical studies became more acute. Studies related to treating the disease – not to mention the all-hands-on-deck drive toward a vaccine – shifted into high gear.

Prior to the crisis, life science clinical development teams relied heavily on in-person investigator meetings and patient visits, working through scheduling challenges and years-long development cycles to reach commercialization endpoints for new therapies. With about 80% of non-COVID trials stopped or interrupted by the pandemic, and many resources shifted to coronavirus-related studies, these fragile timelines were at risk of getting further off-track.

Without in-person…what’s next?

With in-person interactions drastically restricted, patient availability and communication related to clinical trials – and the associated data – began to suffer. Teams looked for ways to rethink site initiation visits, monitoring visits, regulatory inspections, audits, and more, all while physicians and the life science industry at large could focus on little other than COVID-19 response.

The primary consideration for most industries navigating the pandemic included investing in new technology – in fact, nearly 25% of CEOs say their businesses will be more digital following COVID-19 – but clinical teams needed more than video conferencing platforms and instant messaging to ensure safe and successful studies. Instead, they needed to enable viable, virtual engagement with HCPs, investigators, patients, and other trial stakeholders at every phase of drug and device development.

Finding a way forward

In some cases buoyed by tech-savvy peers and in others simply taking a leap of faith, clinical teams began to adapt – and then champion – virtual engagement. They learned to rethink meeting structure, evolving from large-format live meetings to asynchronous sessions with on-demand webcast elements. The change not only allowed work to continue but also accommodated the human element: clinicians on the front lines or juggling work and family demands from home weren’t forced to carve out yet another hour of time multitasking while on camera. And by doing more virtual work and sitting through fewer virtual meetings, clinical teams began to see that virtual engagement wasn’t just a crisis-induced stopgap.

Building on lessons learned

As clinical teams realized the benefits of transitioning trial activities to virtual settings – more time in the clinic or at home, no travel, increased comfort with virtual tools – they also observed the time and cost efficiencies gained through asynchronous engagement punctuated by live webcasts.

Vaccine distribution is ramping up, and most of us look forward to resuming some pre-COVID habits like travel and face time (as opposed to no travel and FaceTime). But as clinical teams consider what they’ve learned and gained during the Year of Virtual, what do they need to continue building value and accelerating innovation?

Open-mindedness. Without the willingness and flexibility to change your team’s approach to collaboration, making the shift to more virtual interaction is a no-go. Help your team understand the benefits of being more agile and less beholden to factors out of their control, like travel and other people’s schedules.

Internal change management. Any new process or new tech needs buy-in, and communicating the value of a new approach is critical. If you have to build a case for pivoting to more virtual engagement, make sure your justification aligns with team and corporate goals.

A learning mindset. If there’s one thing teams can take from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that change can have benefits. Once circumstances begin to stabilize and there are more options around how we meet and collaborate, we can choose to revert to old ways or continue to explore what’s possible with a fresh approach.

The last 12 months showed clinical teams the way to not only sustain but accelerate important work and innovation, regardless of the ability to do so in person. This is reason to be optimistic about successfully meeting challenges ahead, and about the potential to realize improvements in patient outcomes and human health.

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