Dietmar Eglhofer is the CEO and co-founder of VIARES, the Vienna Academy for Workforce Competence in Clinical Research & Digital Site Management Services.
The firm recently received IAOCR 5-Star accreditation for its clinical research associates (CRAs) training program.
Additionally, VIARES earlier this year announced the IN AWE partnership, which collates the staffing and training skills of VIARES and SEC Recruitment with the internationally recognizable accreditation services provided by IAOCR.
To learn more about the work being done to address the CRA shortage, we caught up with Eglhofer to discuss what is being done today and to increase the workforce in the future.
Outsourcing-Pharma (OSP): What is the problem facing the CRA workforce?
Dietmar Eglhofer: The problem is a vicious circle and threefold. First, the industry is not funding the creation of new talent at the scale and quality needed.
Secondly, aggressive poaching of existing talent increases as demand for CRAs grows.
And thirdly, as there is not enough action to reduce the shortage, the attrition within the available CRA pool means there are even fewer CRAs to go around.
The result is a shrinking CRA workforce while the contract research organization (CRO) industry is forecast to grow 7.4% to 8.2% annually between 2018 and 2023, which equates to 50% to 60% growth in the next five years.
In summary, the shortage is worsening, while demand is growing. Open CRA roles on just one of the major job platforms in the US grew from about 13,000 in March 2018 to 17,600 in August 2018.
OSP: In what ways is the industry working to address this?
Eglhofer: The industry is promoting technology as the solution. For example, handheld devices used by CRAs that accept data input at the source, but this is a double-edged sword. It may, in principle, reduce the number of CRAs needed, but also creates the need for technology literate CRAs that currently do not exist.
Site-less trials are one of the latest trends that might reduce the need for CRAs over time, but this solution is likely to be limited to studies on chronic and non-life-threatening diseases and we are unlikely to see this for complex therapeutic areas like oncology.
The industry also provides programs for entry-level CRAs that are designed in-house and locally delivered. However, each pharma company or CRO is re-inventing the wheel country by country, producing a myriad of programs with non-standard quality of learning outcomes.
OSP: How are you going to contribute to solve the problem?
Eglhofer: We are partnering with SEC Recruitment, so we can bring the expertise and passion of life since recruitment and training into one solution. Our simple mission is to provide the industry with qualified CRA resources today and increase the size of the overall pool tomorrow.
We will achieve this using scalable, cost-effective and industry accredited solutions. As an independent provider, we can provide resources to the whole industry.
OSP: How will it work in practice?
Eglhofer: We recruit top graduates with relevant work experience and assess them against today’s professionals, an industry competency framework and the clients’ job profiles.
The selected candidates are taken through our industry-leading training to provide them with technical skills, social skills and industry accredited competencies.
Our clients can then permanently hire or in-source the new CRAs as contractors.
OSP: Surely this will take time, so what can be done today?
Eglhofer: As we bring the holistic solution to market, we already have all individual components available. We built the sourcing process, completed the training modules and industry accredited the training and our trainers.
This now enables us to deploy point-solutions such as cross-skilling CRAs, providing new therapeutic area skills like oncology, CNS and others and upskilling junior CRAs to seniors, improving their skills to effectively manage the relationships with sites and sponsors.
Career progression for pharma-literate non-CRAs also can be cross-trained as CRAs instead of being made redundant, and industry accreditation for existing CRAs provides continuing professional development.
We also work to analyze and amend existing in-house programs to make them future-fit.
OSP: How does this affect the bottom line of clinical trials?
At the end of the day, there have to be top and bottom line impacts for CROs and pharma for this to take off.
For example, by cross-skilling CRAs who are under-utilized in one therapeutic area into another area with high demand, you immediately increase the productivity of your existing workforce and improve your margins.
Additionally, you lower the total hiring cost when upskilling junior to senior CRAs instead of poaching others in a tight market. And by retaining your experienced CRAs, you can invest their time in building stronger relationships with sites, which is particularly important if site staff keep changing regularly and new ones need to be educated quickly on the trial protocols.
Industry accreditation also will create greater engagement between the CRA and the employer and reduce attrition while increasing the employer’s brand appeal.
Finally, the productivity of the CRAs who graduate from the improved in-house programs will more than pay for the cost of upgrading the program.