Why CRO Staff Need Robust Digital Literacy Skills

Digital literacy skills are no longer merely nice to have. They are essential for navigating daily life, both at home and at work.

For contract research organization (CRO) staff members, digital literacy skills need to keep pace with the rapidly expanding world of decentralized clinical trials, which rely heavily on digital tools.

CRO teams need these skills in order to design effective clinical trials, boost recruitment and retention efforts, collect and manage data, and disseminate the result of their efforts. They also need digital literacy skills to help patients understand and use certain healthcare technologies, such as wearable devices.

Below, we will explore what specific forces are driving this need and how CROs can build those skills for use now and the future.

The Importance of Digital Literacy

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital adoption efforts that were already underway, turning nice-to-have digital literacy skills into must-have abilities for CROs.

“Decentralized clinical trials (DCTs) were a fashion statement two years ago, but now everyone has a strategy,” says Nimita Limaye, research vice president at IDC Health Insight. Those strategies demand digital literacy skills for support and implementation.

The pandemic also focused some digital adoption efforts on areas like community and patient engagement, which were deeply affected by social distancing measures. In a 2022 article, Rayner K.J. Tan and fellow researchers identify three ways digital tools are changing community engagement in clinical trials:

  • Decentralized clinical trials enabled by digital technologies.
  • Digital crowdsourcing to develop trial components.
  • Digital qualitative research methods, such as surveys and other tools.

Implementing any of these approaches requires CROs to have the digital literacy needed to understand, use, and troubleshoot digital technologies.

Mediating the Patient-Provider Relationship

Digital tools continue to change clinical trial recruitment, retention, data analysis, and reporting. They’re also changing the way patients interact with providers and understand their role in the healthcare process.

In the 2021 Accenture Health and Life Sciences Experience Survey, Kaveh Safavi and fellow authors surveyed nearly 1,800 people in the United States regarding their digital healthcare experiences. The authors reported that 32 percent of responding patients said they’d had a telehealth appointment in the previous year, up from just 7 percent pre-pandemic.

Among patients with chronic conditions, the number was even higher, about 39 percent. Using digital tools to access their own electronic health records (EHRs) was also more common among patients.

Tech Fatigue Among Some Patients

Patients are becoming more accustomed to engaging with health and medical services via digital means. Yet they’re also wary of it: Over half of the Accenture survey respondents said they didn’t want to do telehealth appointments if it meant going through a third-party technology provider.

These findings indicate that strong digital skills on a CRO team can both help support patients’ expectations and calm their fears about digital tools and participation in decentralized trials.


Training and Upskilling CRO Staff

Many contract research organization professionals already have a foundation of digital literacy skills. Providing effective training and upskilling requires CRO leaders to inventory the skills their teams have, then focus on providing additional training and upskilling in needed areas.

Stacey Wedlake and David Keyes of the Seattle Digital Equity Initiative divide digital literacy skills into 10 categories:

  • Communication skills focus on using digital tools for sharing ideas in multiple formats.
  • Creation skills include generating and revising digital content.
  • Device ownership skills focus on device care, from protective cases to antivirus software and technical support.
  • Gateway skills focus on basic use of hardware and software.
  • Information skills enable digitally literate uses to evaluate, use, and manage information in both their digital and real-world lives.
  • Lifelong learning skills allow workers to evaluate and improve upon their digital literacy abilities.
  • Mobile skills focus specifically on the use of mobile devices.
  • Online life skills support using digital tools for daily tasks, communication with family and friends, and other community-focused activities.
  • Privacy and security skills enable digitally literate users to protect their identities, recognize scams and threats, and make safe choices in a digital environment.
  • Workplace skills apply digital literacy to the workplace, both to complete tasks and to engage with other professionals.

For CROs, several of these skill groups apply to their daily work. These include gateway skills, communication and creation skills, information skills, workplace skills, and device care and protection.

As companies in and out of the health sphere have sought to bolster their teams’ digital literacy, a set of best practices in training and upskilling digital literacy has emerged, writes Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at National Skills Coalition.

These include:

  • Distinguishing between foundational skills and work-related skills.
  • Using integrated models to make digital literacy skill building part of CRO teams’ everyday work.
  • Ensuring that every team member has access to broadband and digital devices capable of supporting digital literacy skills and work required.
  • Partnering with digitally focused companies and vendors that can provide additional training, context, and support.

Digital literacy skill-building programs will naturally vary across CROs. Ideally, each program would be tailored to the needs of the people learning or improving their digital skills. In each instance, a successful program would lead to improved digital fluency and confidence.


The Future of Digital Literacy and Digital Resilience

Digital literacy focuses on the skills required to use technology responsibly. While these skills matter, many professionals — including those who work for and with CROs — have found that digital literacy skills alone aren’t sufficient to prepare them for the rapidly changing nature of work.

For that, digital resilience skills take precedence. Digital resilience skills focus on the ability to adapt to changing technologies and changing demands for digital skills.

“Building on-ramps and pathways to digital inclusion and resilience will take frank conversations with everyone at the table, innovation, and unprecedented commitment and investment,” says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Digital literacy among CROs may lead to better outcomes in diversity and inclusion initiatives for clinical trials, as well. In a 2022 study, Michelle Holko and fellow researchers found that rural and low-income households were disproportionately less likely to participate in clinical trials that involved using digital wearable devices — even when these households were most likely to benefit from the decentralized nature of the trial.

“Despite an increase in broadband and smartphone ownership and use across the United States, access to digital health technologies in lower-income households lags behind middle and upper-income households,” Holko and the research team write.

“Improved access to digital infrastructure and devices in diverse communities is needed to avoid the risk of digital technologies becoming another social determinant of health.”

When CRO team members have strong digital literacy skills, they are better able to teach patients the skills required to participate in digital-dependent clinical trials. By doing so, these CROs expand their patient pools, developing better data from the clinical trials in which they participate.

The Path Forward for CROs

Digital literacy is a must for CRO teams. By examining the skills each team member requires, CRO leadership can implement best practices in training for digital literacy and digital resilience. The results of a successful program include improved clinical trial design, participation, data generation, and outcomes.

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