How Duke is modernizing the clinical research workforce

October 25, 2018

A team of Duke authors, including lead author Rebecca Brouwer and senior author Denise Snyder, have been selected to receive the Rod Rose Award for best article in the Journal of Research Administration, 2017.

Their paper, “Using Competencies to Transform Clinical Research Job Classifications,” describes a four-year collaborative initiative to modernize the world of clinical research professionals at Duke, involving people from Duke Clinincal & Transational Science Institute (CTSI), the Duke School of Medicine, the Duke Office of Clinical Research (DOCR), Duke Compensation, School of Medicine Human Resources and other groups. Some funding to support the work within DOCR came from the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA).

Brouwer, who is the Director of the Duke Office of Research Initiatives, describes the problem that Duke, and many other academic medical centers, were facing: “Job responsibilities and roles in clinical research have changed a lot in the past twenty years, but the way we classify those jobs had not.

“There was no consistent framework, and without a lot of digging, it was hard to know who had clinical research responsibilities. It was difficult for many people to get promoted or advance in their careers, and the number of titles held by research professionals at Duke had become unmanageable.”

Introducing tiers

A working group was formed to tackle this challenge, and they created a simplified classification system, with just 12 job descriptions (as opposed to more than 80), and tiered groups based on “competencies”—the skills integral to clinical research tasks. Today, 845 Duke staff occupy positions in these job classifications.

“Competencies in clinical research are pretty well agreed upon due to the work of the Joint Task Force for Clinical Trials Competency,” Brouwer says. “Through a variety of assessment methods, we now ask people to exhibit their competencies. If they achieve these competencies, they accumulate points to move through the tiers. The highest tier requires evidence of additional leadership within clinical research or the institution.”

In addition to creating a more balanced environment for professionals, the framework helps Duke quantify, and communicate, the strength of its research workforce.

“It’s pretty important for Duke to have the best clinical workforce,” Brouwer explains. “Researchers will come here if they think they will be supported. The new system is an important step in demonstrating that we have a well-rounded, highly-trained staff with a holistic understanding of clinical research.”

Raising (and clearing) the bar

In publishing the results of this effort, they hope to provide a model that other institutions can use to address their workforce challenges, too. Brouwer says about a dozen institutions have already reached out to learn more.

“We want to look 5 or 10 years from now and see if we’re recruiting and retaining the best people. It’s intended to raise the bar on the clinical research profession, and help people find ways to attain that bar. Ultimately, the goal is to have well-trained staff that can provide high-quality support for clinical research.”

The Workforce Engagement & Resilience initiative is continuing work in this realm.  Visit their website for more information.

Brouwer and the team will accept their award at the annual meeting of the Society of Research Administrators International in Orlando, FL on October 30, 2018.

Click here to read the full paper.

This work was supported in part by Duke’s CTSA grant UL1TR002553 from the National Institutes of Health.