Clearly good cell network or WIFI connectivity is of primary importance when thinking about using ePRO in a clinical study. Sites should conduct a feasibility activity in their local vicinity during the study initiation phase to understand if cell network strengths are good enough for ePRO and if not, if there is likely to be a large population of subjects that have home WIFI. For remote locations with possible issues with either the cell network coverage or even with the availability of electricity, these sites should be reconsidered before a decision is made to use ePRO.
However, even with bad cell network coverage, it is possible to conduct a study with ePRO by ensuring the correct messaging appears to the subjects on the device. All ePRO systems allow the subjects to access and complete their diaries on a daily basis without cell or WIFI connectivity. The data entered by the subject is stored on the device until connectivity is established. There are circumstances where the site may need to be made aware of certain responses in real time in order to maintain subject safety. If connectivity is established and the data is sent in real time, the site staff may receive an alert from the system asking them to contact the participant. In order to ensure participant safety is maintained it is good practice to alert the participant to contact the sites / study doctor if certain responses in the diary are provided, such as if the participant required emergency medical attention.
As mentioned earlier in an earlier instalment, translation is an aspect not typically associated with clinical systems such as EDC. Additionally, because the ePRO devices are in the hands of the participants, the screens, in their local languages, must be submitted to the local ethics committees within the countries that the study is to take place in.
It should not be forgotten that paper PRO is also subject to a translation process. However, the additional complexity with ePRO is the need to apply the translated text to the software in order to generate the questionnaire screens. This involves multiple review and update rounds between the ePRO vendor and the translation vendor which increases time, effort and therefore cost. Once the screens are generated there may be further review rounds during the in-country review between the local sponsor representatives, ePRO vendor and translation vendor. All of these review rounds increase the timescales for an activity that is already time critical.
Often the date for submission to the ethics committee is set during the planning phase of the study by the sponsor study team. If the submission date is missed it could result in a delay to the study start. Consequently, it is important to ensure clear timelines are in place between agreeing the ePRO requirements, which will decide what is displayed on each of the screens, and submitting the screen report to the ethics committees. The ePRO vendor will need to be made aware of these timelines at the earliest opportunity. It can take more than 12 weeks for the completion of the translations resulting in the creation of the finalized screen reports. These timelines are difficult to manage if the process includes an in-country review round which allows for local country representatives from the sponsor to review the translations. It is important to make clear to the reviewers what it is that these stakeholders are reviewing. Translation is not an exact science. There are many ways of writing the same sentence. As the translator is the trained expert in translations it should be left to them to choose the most appropriate wording in the local language which most faithfully represents the English version. The in-country review, if indeed one is required, should only be conducted to ensure the correct screens are displayed in the screen reports. Allowing the in-country reviewer to make suggestions on preferred wording risks multiple back and forth review rounds, increasing timelines and jeopardizing study start dates.
As briefly mentioned in part one of this series, possibly the most crucial aspect when introducing a new system or process to a user base is change management. If you do not bring your users along the journey with you, you are less likely to gain their acceptance.
How does this manifest itself? With ePRO there is plenty of opportunity for issues to arise, from delays in getting devices to sites, to errors in the software, to usability and connectivity issues. All of which can affect the investigators ability to get on with their daily work. If you have not put in place a good change management process you will find the investigators very quickly become disenchanted with the system and even the smallest of issues will become magnified, resulting in escalations to the sponsors senior management team.
It is important from the outset to set the stage with the investigators. Why are we using ePRO? What benefits does it bring to the sponsor? It may require more work on behalf of the investigator which will need to be compensated for. It is also about setting expectations. Things will go wrong, issues will need to be resolved, backup processes may need to be utilized, but the investigator must be aware that they have the support when needed and how they can access that support.
When implementing ePRO thought should go into understanding how to improve the investigators experience. For example, investigators can be working on multiple studies at the same time for different sponsors all using ePRO, so adding labels onto the packaging of shipped devices so that investigators can quickly store them together is a quick win.
As a sponsor it may also be necessary to implement an additional layer of support for the study team. When issues arise the investigator will contact the vendor helpdesk. Often the helpdesk are unable to provide an immediate remedy so the investigator will then contact the sponsor’s study team representatives. The additional layer of support sits between the study team and the vendor, collating issues, communicating technical information back and forth in a manner that is easily digestible and holding the ePRO vendor to account. This relieves the frustration experienced within the sponsor’s study team and reduces the likelihood of escalation.
It is important to remember that in accordance with ICH GCP guidance section 5.2.1  the sponsor may transfer trial-related duties to a vendor, however the ultimate responsibility for the quality and data integrity of the trial data always resides with the sponsor. In order to ensure data is collected, stored and transferred in accordance with ICH-GCP guidance the sponsor will need a suitable oversight strategy of the vendor’s processes. This may, at a minimum, include a qualification activity which involves auditing the ePRO vendor on a regular basis. It may also invoke some internal validation work to ensure, as the sponsor, your own organisation’s technical and study specific requirements for clinical systems are met.
It is not recommended for the sponsor to leave the responsibility of vendor oversight to the individual study teams. The study teams may not have the experience or technical know-how necessary to understand the challenges and considerations discussed earlier in this blog.
We would recommend a two stage process.
Stage one is the qualification of the vendors system by a centralized team including stakeholders from the data management and computer system quality departments. Once qualified, the vendor’s system can be classed as a platform that can subsequently be used on multiple studies.
Stage two is to have experienced stakeholders conduct study specific User Acceptance Testing (UAT) in order to test the many scenarios and nuances associated with ePRO and to ensure the system meets the requirements of the study Protocol. Once implemented and running live on a study it is far more difficult to update the system than finding and fixing the issue during the implementation phase.
However, UAT is the very least the Sponsor must do as part of the overall study specific validation activity (Stage two). The Sponsor’s quality management system (QMS) may also mandate that the implementation of any clinical system (which would include ePRO) requires internal validation documentation to supplement the vendor’s validation package. This can include documents such as a sponsor Validation Plan, Requirements Specification, Risk Assessment, Traceability Matrix and Validation Report.
ePRO vendors will often offer to provide a service to create UAT script on behalf of the Sponsor, however this is not recommended as a misunderstanding of requirements by the vendor may also manifest itself in the scripting. This can result in the script passing when executed when in fact it does not meet the requirements of the Sponsor.
For these reasons, having experienced validation professionals generating the deliverables and executing the testing is recommended.
The two parts of this blog have detailed, at a high level, many of the challenges that can be experienced during the implementation and use of ePRO. These challenges are summarized below:
These challenges, and others, often create frustration for the investigators and study teams, and in the worst case scenarios, studies can be put on hold or stopped completely, costing millions of dollars and preventing a product from going to market.
A mechanism to help mitigate, or at the very least support the investigators and study teams through, many of these challenges is for the sponsor to put in place a centralized ePRO team within their organization. This team, consisting of internal sponsor stakeholders or perhaps supplementing Scimcon resources into the team, would be responsible for the qualification of the ePRO vendor, the strategic implementation of libraries and standards and for supporting the implementation of ePRO study-specifically, providing help with creating validation deliverables and executing UAT, and being a second level of support during the conduct phase of a study. ePRO is fast becoming the standard and it is worthwhile investing early on in an internal team to ensure success.
To discuss how Scimcon can support your organization with the implementation of ePRO, please contact one of our consultants for an informal conversation.
 ICH harmonised guideline integrated addendum to ICH E6(R1): Guideline for Good Clinical Practice ICH E6(R2) ICH Consensus Guideline, https://ichgcp.netThe challenges of implementing ePRO – part one?
When it comes to documenting the advantages of using ePRO over paper in clinical trials, the benefits are clear.
With all the advantages to using ePRO over paper it seems to be a no-brainer to use ePRO whenever possible. However, it’s important to be mindful of certain considerations and challenges that come with the implementation of ePRO within your organization before jumping in.
Historically the implementation of electronic clinical systems in general has been challenging. In the majority of cases it requires the move from a paper-based process to an electronic system in an environment where the reliance has always been on paper, hindering the adoption of computer systems that are seen as alien. Taking EDC as an example, the response to an international survey cited that 46% of respondents identified inertia or concern with changing current process, and 40% identified resistance from investigative sites as the major causes for adoption delays .
ePRO is not immune to these challenges. In fact, it could be argued that ePRO is even more susceptible. While ePRO suffers from the traditional technical issues and user acceptance that EDC experiences, ePRO is also placed in the hands of potentially thousands of study participants many of whom may have little technical understanding. Additionally, ePRO relies on hardware (mobile device or tablet), cell network or WIFI connectivity, translation into the participant’s local language, multiple userbase (study teams, investigators and participants) and local helpdesk support, all of which comes with their own set of challenges and associated costs and few, if any, of which are encountered with EDC.
ePRO is one of the few electronic systems that directly collects source data and as a result comes under increased scrutiny from a data integrity and quality perspective, especially when used for primary or secondary end point data collection. The system must always be available in order to allow subjects to be activated on ePRO devices. If a participant leaves a clinical site without an active device, this can result in missed data which can be construed as a serious quality issue and perhaps put subject safety at risk.
Before I go into the more detailed challenges associated with ePRO, let’s first consider the financial costs.
On the surface of it, it would appear that implementing ePRO is significantly more costly than paper. The expense of the devices, associated logistics and data usage (monthly SIM costs), the licenses, helpdesk and translations all contribute to costs that range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to multi-million-dollar contracts per study.
When making a business case for ePRO it is important to take into account the hidden costs associated with paper in order to compare the two.
When conducting a full assessment, the gap between the cost of implementing ePRO vs paper reduces significantly. ePRO vendors have attempted to provide examples which result in paper diaries actually contributing more cost to a study budget than ePRO.
The business case for implementing ePRO should not be solely based on raw cost. This will likely result in failure to get agreement at the leadership level. You will find it easier to get acceptance if you can prove that ePRO costs are comparable to paper while also concentrating on the non-tangible benefits as, in the case of ePRO, these are the real reasons for its consideration. Increasing the quality of your data collection results in more confidence in that data, which in turn reduces the likelihood of rejection when submitted to the regulators (predominantly for primary and secondary end point data). Receiving the data in real time and reducing the need for data cleaning can aid the ability to get a product to market quicker by shortening the timelines to close the study, which in turn results in cost avoidance.
Many ePRO vendors will provide a cost calculator; a spreadsheet where the sponsor can plug in parameters associated with their study to provide an estimate of costs before engagement with the vendor. Only a small number of parameters are required to calculate a good estimate with the most important being the length of the study in months and the number of participants. The length of the study drives the helpdesk, data usage and PM costs, whereas the number of participants drives the device, logistics and shipping costs. There are other costs associated with the configuration of the system, translation, shipping, number of sites etc, however these are often negligible in comparison for larger studies.
In summary; it is important to build a business case for ePRO within your organization in order to assist in gaining acceptance at a leadership level. The business case should include areas of efficiency over paper together with examples of ePRO costs using the cost calculators provided by the vendors, as well as emphasizing the other benefits of ePRO, such as subject safety, compared to paper solutions.
In the past, ePRO implementations were customized pretty much from the ground up, coding the study specifics into the vendor’s study builder toolkit. This resulted in a huge effort required to validate the system to ensure errors and bugs were captured before studies went live. Inevitably despite all this testing some issues did make it through to the live study, causing frustration for the participants, investigators and study teams.
Over the past decade the systems have become more sophisticated. Less code is required during the implementation phase, which has been replaced with configuration. Vendors have also introduced library functionality which allow sponsors to define questionnaires up front that can be reused across studies. As the questionnaire is not rebuilt every time there is less opportunity to introduce errors. Additionally, the ability to reuse questionnaires from a library also results in less work by the vendor per study, less validation on behalf of the sponsor and can reduce the time and costs during the implementation phase.
It may also be possible to standardize other areas of functionality, perhaps the workflow as to when questionnaires are made available to the participants, or the alerting system, or the visit schedule. It may not be possible to standardize across therapeutic areas, but within a therapeutic area where multiple studies collect the same data this approach can result in substantially reduced timelines during the implementation phase, while reducing the risk of software errors on the studies.
ePRO can be implemented in a number of different modalities. In this blog, we are concentrating on provisioned devices; devices that are provided by the ePRO vendor at a cost to the study Sponsor, and “bring your own device” (BYOD); where a subject’s own device is used as the ePRO instrument. It should be noted that all studies require provisioned devices to a certain degree in order to cater for cases where a subject either does not own a compatible mobile device or does not own a mobile device at all.
When provisioning devices, ePRO vendors are responsible for the associated logistics such as software installation and shipping. Vendors are generally very knowledgeable when it comes to the customs regulations in many countries, including the average timelines required to get a shipment to a site.
In scenarios where competitive recruitment between sites is employed, it is particularly important to plan ahead. As it may not be possible to predict the number of subjects that will be recruited at a specific site and therefore the number of devices required at that site, it is necessary to purchase a sensible overage of provisioned devices. Although costly it ensures sites will not run out of devices.
With an increasing number of the world’s population now owning smart phones, BYOD was seen as the natural progression for ePRO. It reduces the costs and burden of acquiring devices and the associated logistics and also reduces the monthly costs for data usage. These costs do not completely disappear as a certain level of provisioning is required for those cases where participants don’t own a compatible smart phone. BYOD also reduces risks associated with not having enough devices on site, especially, as mentioned above, with competitive recruitment. However, BYOD does come with own set of unique challenges, mainly associated with data integrity and privacy. Some considerations might be:
There are clearly a lot of benefits of using BYOD over provisioned devices with more and more sponsors feeling comfortable moving into this space, however it is important to consider the implications before doing so.
In the next instalment of this blog, we will discuss some other challenges of implementing ePRO in your organisation, such as connectivity, translations, and end user acceptance testing. Keep an eye on our Opinion page for part two of the series, coming soon.
 ‘Electronic for Industry – Electronic Source Data in Clinical Investigations’, FDA 2013 http://www.fda.gov/downloads/drugs/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidances/ucm328691.pdf
 ‘Welker JA. Implementation of electronic data capture systems: barriers and solutions.’ Contemp Clin Trials. 2007 May;28(3):329-36. doi: 10.1016/j.cct.2007.01.001. Epub 2007 Jan 11. PMID: 17287151.