Best Practices for Remote IRB Meetings

The campus closures necessitated by the pandemic in 2020 forced many research administration officials to adopt virtual meetings to continue their work. People scrambled to set up their home offices, to secure Wi-Fi networks and create accounts on videoconferencing services. The Internet offered dozens of articles on how to improve online meetings to encourage engagement and collaboration.

Now, nearly a year later, organizations and companies continue to struggle to run efficient and effective virtual meetings. Online meetings have challenges that many of us have experienced. It’s difficult to read body language or have eye contact. Some technologies have lag times that cause people to talk over each other. Virtual meeting attendees are more prone to interruptions and distractions.

The pandemic forced a dramatic and rapid switch to virtual meetings for Institutional Review Boards, as well. Over half of attendees at a webinar hosted by CITI Program in February 2020 indicated that they held IRB meetings exclusively in person, with about another 40 percent conducting hybrid meetings. Only six percent indicated virtual-only meetings.

BRANY’s IRB has been meeting virtually for several years. These are some of the best practices we have learned, as well as highlights from the CITI webinar mentioned earlier. A recording of the webinar is available on the CITI Web site.

Beyond the usual accommodations required of virtual meetings, Institutional Review Boards have specific regulatory requirements regardless of whether they meet in person or virtually. Ensure that your meetings comply with the regulatory components of 45 CFR 46.111 and 21 CFR 56.111.

Leverage Supporting Technologies
Virtual meetings can be supported with technology-driven solutions specific for managing IRBs. IRB management systems can be very robust and help streamline the IRB review process by enabling online submissions, sending electronic alerts, and storing key documentation, such as IRB policies and determination letters.  Additionally, these tools are extremely useful for generating meeting agendas, meeting minutes and can be utilized during IRB meetings to share relevant documents with the entire IRB committee via video conferences.

Be Consistent
Having a predictable and consistent agenda and process can help keep the meeting running smoothly and on time. Your IRB may want to consider implementing standard meeting procedures, such as those found in Robert’s Rules of Order, with the specific steps for reviewing protocols. It may be useful to distribute these review guidelines to the IRB members as well as the investigators.

Likewise, meetings should be regularly scheduled and on members’ calendars. Standing meeting days and times can increase the likelihood of convening a quorum, one of the regulatory requirements of IRBs.

Provide Training
Training members on the remote meeting platform will help the meeting to run smoothly and reduce the amount of disruption that can occur when people are not proficient at the audio and video technology. The following areas are particularly important:

  • Signing in properly especially when using both a computer and phone. If audio is active on both devices it will create an echo, which is extremely distracting to all participants
  • Using the mute function when others are speaking
  • Remembering to unmute
  • Slow internet speed can cause delays in audio transmission

Agree on Specific Roles
Running a successful IRB meeting requires several people, and their roles should be clearly defined in advance. An IRB coordinator or meeting specialist, for example, can send calendar reminders, links to the necessary materials, and instructions for dialing in to the meeting. Another critical role in an IRB meeting is that of the scribe, or minute-taker.  Accurately capturing the vote count for items reviewed by the committee is also a key responsibility.  Completing a roll call to verbally verify voting may also be a task assumed by this role.

Set Expectations for Behaviors and Procedures
In addition to having clearly defined roles, it is important that the committee understand and consent to certain expected behaviors. For example, it is important to agree on these questions:

  • Does the committee require that cameras be turned on for video calls?
  • How will the chair acknowledge speakers to ensure each individual has an opportunity to share thoughts?
  • How will notes be taken and shared?
  • When will deliberations be considered complete and voting can commence?

Advise meeting participants in advance if you are recording the meeting.

Practice Active Listening
Because the usual dynamic of in-person meetings is not realistic with virtual meetings, it is important to use active listening skills to ensure that people are not only heard, but also understood. Aside from paying attention and withholding judgment, participants — led by the example of the chair — can use skills such as reflecting, clarifying and summarizing. This also helps improve accuracy for notetaking.

While many people are anxious to get back to their offices and resume in-person meetings, the reality of virtual meetings — at least some of the time — is likely to remain a bit longer. Even beyond the pandemic, IRBs should be prepared to respond to possible future emergency situations that necessitate virtual meetings. These and other best practices can make virtual IRB meetings not only smooth, but compliant with regulations.