From personal lives and daily livelihoods to businesses and governments, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly left its mark. Unquestionably, one such area which has been severely impacted by the events of the last few years is the clinical trials industry.
In the competition to develop and deliver an effective vaccine against the disease, vital resources were diverted away from pre-existing trials, with the focus shifting to other areas. Businesses had to quickly pivot their workforces, and in some exceptional circumstances even their entire business model. In terms of clinical research organisations, this necessitated them to embrace entirely new ways of working, such as conducting trials off-site and remotely.
Although the pandemic now appears to be under control, the changes of the past three years have caused lingering operational side effects for clinical research organisations. As businesses work towards finding some sense of post-pandemic stability, FinancialForce has conducted some research to assess the state of the industry. This research highlights the lessons learnt from the events of the pandemic and how businesses responded to the challenges presented.
Current challenges faced in the healthcare sector
Given the impact COVID-19 has had on the clinical trials industry, it is unsurprising that most organisations consider cost control to be one of the key challenges they currently face. With the pandemic threatening the very survival of some organisations, maintaining tight control of spending and outgoings is vital. In order to achieve this, those operating in the critical trials sector need not work harder – they must work smarter.
Clinical research organisations also highlighted the ongoing pressure to ensure effective trial management as a key challenge which they’re currently facing. One of the main takeaways from the pandemic has been the need to lessen development time frames and increase the speed at which vaccines are produced. Demands have now been placed on businesses operating in the clinical trials industry for rapid lifecycles, making the effective management of clinical trials a necessity.
What’s more, the sector has faced increased scrutiny in recent years, with the public demanding greater levels of transparency regarding the development of new vaccines. People know that vaccines can be developed quickly, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 vaccines, which were produced rapidly in order to protect those at highest risk from serious illness or death caused by the virus. It is therefore unsurprising that in an environment where it is a necessity for companies to comply with every new regulatory requirement, compliance is becoming increasingly important for clinical research organisations.
The future of clinical research organisations post-COVID-19
Across many industry sectors, the pandemic has given businesses a wake-up call, with many having to find new ways to ensure their survival. A vast number of organisations discovered that their existing legacy systems needed to be upgraded or replaced entirely as they were unable to pivot to support the evolved needs of the businesses.
The research confirmed this to be the case for clinical research organisations. Only one in four businesses have not yet increased their plans for digital transformation in response to the pandemic. The majority (76%) have said that their plans for digital transformation are accelerating, with 43% of participating organisations even stating that their plans have increased significantly. Both the opportunity to challenge existing working environments and the potential for change are substantial.
Considering the impact that COVID-19 has had on the clinical trials industry – for example, forcing organisations to conduct decentralised trials – businesses are likely to see the value of digital and cloud technologies in order to put themselves in the best position to succeed in the future. It is worth noting that the desire to embrace digital transformation is particularly strong amongst large enterprises, with 50% of firms with over 5,000 employees preparing to significantly bolster their digital transformation efforts compared to 38% of smaller companies. This can be attributed to these larger organisations having legacy systems in place, a technology debt which many realise needed to be addressed amidst the pandemic. On the other hand, smaller companies generally have fewer systems which need to be considered, while there is also the possibility they have already embraced more agile technologies, such as the cloud.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on a range of sectors, few more so than the clinical research industry. Organisations operating in the industry have needed to address numerous significant difficulties, including having to cope with the move to more decentralised remote trials. Further to this, progress in some aspects has been halted by disjointed business processes, while the quality of data is questionable. Much of this is due to the reliance on legacy technology that is now incapable of pivoting rapidly in response to changes in the market.
One of the key things that the clinical research industry can take away from the pandemic is that organisations can demonstrably respond effectively to crises. The fact that multiple vaccines have been successfully developed in the space of less than 12 months has provided clear evidence of what is possible in the field. The hope is that some of the lessons from these successes will enable improvements to be made in other parts of the clinical trials industry.