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Hard times: How IRBs can cut costs without sacrificing service
Charge fees, cut paper use, reduce overhead
[Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series on how IRBs can cut costs during these lean budget times. States are forcing higher education payroll and departmental budget cuts across the nation, and IRBs likely will be impacted. IRB Advisor asked a number of IRB efficiency experts to discuss how IRBs can make do with fewer resources. In this month's issue we present a case study of how one university approached IRB cost-cutting. In the April, 2009, issue, there were stories on collecting outcome data and making your IRB more cost-efficient.]
Sometimes the best way to cut costs in the long run is to spend more money in the short-term. This is the philosophy behind the move to an electronic IRB submission system at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, NC.
"When we look at what our costs are, it's always paper; it's always copying," says Norma B. Epley, MS, CIP, administrative director and department chairperson of the University & Medical Center Institutional Review Board at ECU.
Most university research institutions are experiencing state budget cutbacks, which have resulted in hiring freezes, Epley notes.
"With our research enterprise growing — and I believe it will continue to grow — and with the freeze on hiring, it's very important we utilize every bit of resources we have," Epley says. "So that includes even the processing of IRB applications and forms."
This is why the IRB and research institution have focused on the costs in time and paper of copying information, faxing forms, etc., she adds.
"I think most institutions are going to look toward electronic relief for those kinds of expenses," she says.
"Those are the areas we're really focusing on now," Epley says. "How can we continue to provide the service we should be providing to our investigators and still meet the budget constraints we have?"
Therefore, Epley and staff are setting up electronic forms.
Fortunately for the IRB office, the university is providing the new computerized data management system free of charge to the IRB, she notes.
"Part of the new system will have electronic IRB submissions built into it," Epley explains. "There will be in-house people doing it."
Once in place, the new system will provide electronic IRB agendas, as well as electronic submissions.
Epley estimates that about two-thirds of IRB members will immediately use the electronic system, and the remaining people will need paper copies, at least in the beginning.
"A third of our members are just not used to electronic forms," she adds. "Plus our community members may not have the resources to have a computer or to print-out anything."
An easier sell
The electronic system will be easier to sell to investigators because they have received National Institutes of Health (NIH) training on electronic submissions, Epley says.
"They're a very supportive group, and they'll want to understand and do whatever they can to help the IRB cut back on costs," she says.
Another cost-cutting move is to provide Web-based education, Epley says.
"Typically, we've had classes, seminars, workshops, and staff meetings that people attend," she says. "But that's an expense in human resources."
"So we thought we could cut back by providing education through electronic means where investigators and others can take the courses at their leisure or from their home, and they'd still meet the university's requirements," she adds.
"If we can provide information that's unique to ECU through Web-based training, it will allow my staff to focus on issues they need to focus on within the office," Epley says. "And, hopefully, that will mean we won't have to cut any services."
The IRB also will save money by offering in-house professional development opportunities, such as helping study coordinators become better regulatory specialists.
"There won't be money for professional development like there has been in the past, so if we can provide that in house it will be one of the greatest services we have to offer," Epley says.
Another strategy during lean budget times is for IRBs to charge fees for their services to protocols submitted by for-profit entities.
ECU has limited fees to industry sponsors, but does not charge for student research or for federally-funded or principal investigator-initiated research, she says.
"ECU has just initiated this," she adds. "It was in place, but we had never enforced it until March, 2008, and it has provided enough funds for the institution to hire me."
The fee income has made the IRB self-sufficient in terms of salaries, Epley says.
"So that was one way to help with the budget," she adds.
When IRBs and research institutions face difficult economic times, they also need to keep up staff morale through small, inexpensive gestures, Epley suggests.
"For instance, I'll buy lunch and have a game day for staff," she says. "During lunch, we'll play board games and card games."
It is up to managers, directors, IRB administrators, and upper administration to help individual employees realize how important they are to the organization, Epley says.
"We want staff to know this is a team effort and everyone has to chip in during hard times, but it will pass," she adds. "And when it does pass, there will be rewards."
Also, a simple thank-you can go a long way, Epley says.
IRBs also might improve staff morale and cut overhead costs by giving staff some flex time.
"As long as an IRB office is covered for its services, it seems to me that it may be beneficial to allow people to work flex time so that one day a week we're not hitting the utilities quite as hard," Epley explains. "This would mean having a day where people would work from their homes, and the IRB's phones would be transferred."
For institutions where some faculty appointments are for nine months of the year and so IRBs see less foot traffic in the summer, flex time especially would make sense during the slower months, she suggests.
"Perhaps you could allow someone to review applications and operating policies from their home because there are a lot of things that can be done when submissions are electronic," Epley adds.