What to know about project management for clinical trials

Completing any multi-part task requires organization, coordination, and discipline — and, of course, clinical trials are no exeption. Planning a research study, launching a trial, and keeping things running smoothly requires knowledge and expertise, which is why clinical trial project managers are so vital to the process.

From creating a plan, communicating updates, calculating risks, and addressing any mistakes that arise, solid project management is a necessity to ensure medical research is allowed to move forward. Here, we’ll discuss the role of the clinical trial project manager, as well as tips for developing project plans, stakeholder involvement, communication, IRB submission, and summarizing lessons learned.

What is project management in clinical trials?

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines project management as the "application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements." Project management combines expertise in scope, time, cost, quality, risk management, communication, and stakeholder management in order to move through the five basic phases of any project:

  1. Project initiation. This phase involves developing an idea, understanding the necessity of the project, and identifying the key decision-makers
  2. Project planning. This is the phase for making a plan and outlining the work required, including prioritization, budget, schedule, and resources
  3. Project execution. This is where tasks are distributed by informing all teams of their responsibilities and deadlines
  4. Project monitoring. This entails implementing project tracking to compare the current project status and progress with the original plan, adjusting as needed
  5. Project closure. The final phase, where project managers reflect on project success and key learnings for next time

When concerning clinical trials, project management brings all of these phases together to ensure set up, enrollment, operations, and reporting are all done smoothly and effectively. 

Roles of a clinical trial project manager

A clinical trial project manager may have different responsibilities specific to each trial, but in general, they will be tasked with vendor selection, budget oversight, IRB submissions, report creation, and meeting planning, all of which are detailed below.

Vendor selection: Because conducting a clinical trial requires many different elements, outside vendors will often be brought in to provide expertise in certain aspects of a study. This is most common for specialized elements such as Interactive Web Response Systems (IWRS), electronic patient-reported outcome (ePRO) technology, and clinical trial patient recruitment. Often, it will be the project manager's job to vet these vendors and assist with comparing options.

Timeline and budget oversight: Though every study begins with a specific timeline and budget, nearly 80% of all clinical trials are delayed due to difficulties in patient recruitment, which causes many to exceed their budget. In these situations, a project manager can leverage their expertise to hold the trial team accountable for the time and money spent on the study, in addition to managing expectations should these elements begin to change. 

IRB submissions: Any patient-facing materials involved in research studies must be reviewed and submitted for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, and gathering these materials is often the responsibility of the clinical trial project manager. Because every IRB is different, the project manager will need to look at previous submissions and any templates that are available to ensure the study's particular IRB requirements are met.

Report generation: As part of tracking the progress of a trial, clinical trial project managers should regularly generate and distribute reports on various aspects of a study’s progress. These reports can often be automated so they are not a time-consuming task, but they do play an essential role in keeping key stakeholders looped in on the progress of the research.

Meeting coordination: Occasionally, the trial’s key stakeholders may need to meet to review a trial’s progress and address any roadblocks. The project manager will likely be charged with planning and leading these meetings to ensure that all details are covered and relevant updates are provided.

Tips for effective project management in clinical trials

Create a detailed project plan

One of the best ways to circumvent delays and issues in a clinical trial is to create a detailed project plan before the study launches. This plan should include a timeline of milestones, key dates, a task schedule, and any other relevant pieces that can keep the project on track. Some people may prefer pen and paper for this, but there are also many online resources available to help project managers keep track of details and stay on schedule.

Anticipate risk management demands

Every project will have some level of risk, so it’s wise to acknowledge what points of contention may arise and plan accordingly. A few examples of risks associated with clinical trials include:

  • Long wait times for IRB approval
  • Delays in patient recruitment
  • Turnover among site staff
  • Changes to the trial protocol

Before the project starts, it can be helpful to come together as a team to discuss potential risks that may arise, share past experiences, and determine how they can be prevented or handled if they do arise.

Understand IRB requirements

In most studies, the project manager will also be tasked with gathering materials and submitting them for approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Every IRB will vary on its guidelines, but IRB administrators should be able to answer any questions to ensure a smooth and efficient process.

Even if the responsibility of IRB submission is a task for the project manager, it can be helpful to enlist additional team members to provide a second set of eyes before the materials are submitted. It is also wise to create a checklist of elements that should be included in the IRB packet to ensure nothing gets left out.

Foster open communication between sites and sponsors

Another important communication piece for project managers is to share feedback from sites back with the sponsor of the trial. Communication is particularly important in relation to sharing updates with sponsors about recruitment or screening challenges the site may be facing. 

Communication tips for project management

One of the most important jobs of a clinical trial project manager is to ensure clear and effective communication with multiple stakeholders. To manage this communication from the onset, it can be useful to create a list of stakeholders, the updates they'll need, and how often they should be informed.

To manage this communication, the RACI project management method can provide a helpful framework to organize stakeholders into four categories based on their involvement in the project and communication needs.

  • Responsible: The responsible party is the main point person for communication – this is the stakeholder who does the actual work of this part of the project. For example, when submitting outreach material to the IRB, the person responsible for creating the material may be the lead on the marketing team or the contact at a clinical trial recruitment company.
  • Accountable: The accountable person is generally the manager of the responsible party and may wish to be involved in only some of the updates related to the project. Generally, if the responsible party needs approval from their manager, they should do so before sharing updates more broadly.
  • Consulted: The consulted party would be any additional stakeholders who should weigh in on a project. The responsible or accountable party can generally help project managers determine who should be involved in the consultation.
  • Informed: These are people who are simply kept up-to-date on the progress of the project at appropriate intervals.

A paper on managing clinical trials published by the National Institutes of Health also mentions the importance of keeping the investigators themselves in the loop about a trial, stating, "Investigators need to feel valued and part of an inclusive team answering an important clinical question, so providing regular feedback that ensures they feel involved must be central to a trial's communication strategy." Because the investigators may also have busy clinical practices in addition to being part of the trial, it’s important to respect their time while making them feel involved and informed.

Project managers’ roles after a clinical trial

Project management is an ever-evolving skill and there are lessons to be learned from even the most successful project execution. It’s important that project managers evaluate each trial after it's complete in order to analyze trends and plan for the next one while key learnings are still top of mind. As Hubspot puts it, "a productive project post-mortem is a chance to fully unpack a project's trajectory and dig deeper into why things unfolded the way they did.”

Hosting a project post-mortem meeting involving key stakeholders is advisable. Sending a pre-meeting questionnaire can streamline the process of gathering thoughts on what went well, what didn't, and what could be done better next time. The agenda should include a recap of the project's goals and a review of the results so that any discrepancies can be addressed and everyone is able to come up with actionable takeaways for the future.

If you're interested in learning more about how Antidote begins the clinical trial recruitment process and manages the project throughout, download our recruitment template below.