New and improved electronic systems for information and communication technology have been exploding in our society, and this phenomenon is also reaching into the IRB world with profound impact. AAHRPP began collecting metrics from organizations in 2009, and while this represents only three years of data, the trends for technology use reveal one of the most striking changes in practice.
Reliance on electronic databases to track IRB protocols has been pervasive. In 2009, 94.1 percent of organizations with an IRB used such systems, and 94.2 percent reported using them in 2011. But in 2009, fewer than half of organizations (47 percent) used electronic distribution of materials (as compared to paper), while in 2011 this number increased to over 66 percent. A similar increase occurred for online IRB applications, with 34 percent reporting using them in 2009, 41 percent in 2010, and 54 percent in 2011. Likewise the use of online systems for IRB review functions has grown from 30 percent to 42 percent to 51 percent, respectively.
Technology is enabling IRBs to be more efficient, to commit fewer errors, and to collect metrics more easily. Online applications with required fields give IRBs all the information they need to make determinations. Minute taking and other forms of compliance with regulations and policies are enhanced. The downside of these systems is that they can be expensive to purchase or modify and that they produce less personal IRB and researcher relations. Also, computers and electronic systems cannot replace good ethical discussions and determinations. These systems are tools to assist and enhance IRB functions, not replace them. There is little doubt that the trend toward more technology will continue for IRBs. Proper use of the technology can improve IRB function and regulatory compliance. Along with old-fashioned brainpower and ethical thinking, technology can facilitate research and help protect research participants.