Clinical Research Project Management: Back to Basics

Clinical trials require care and precision regarding planning, coordination, and collaboration. The stakes are high, with participants’ health and well-being and significant investments of both time and money on the line. That’s why clinical research project managers are necessary – to ensure coordinated and collaborative efforts between numerous departments, teams, and vendors that adhere to the study protocol as well as regulatory and ethical standards. In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the basics of clinical research project management.

What is project management in clinical research?

Clinical trials involve several complex, dynamic parts with different boundaries/areas of responsibility, and personnel with specific skill sets and qualifications. As a consequence, successful clinical trials require organizers who are adept at project management.

Clinical trials can be thought of as large-scale, complex projects with multiple milestones and parallel workstreams, including:

  • Study and protocol design
  • Study startup
  • Site activation
  • Funding
  • Recruitment
  • Documentation (promotional material, informed consent forms, case report forms, protocol documents, surveys, etc.)
  • IRB and IEC approval
  • Data
  • Site management
  • Investigational product distribution and management of study materials
  • Laboratories (analyses, lab tests, imaging, etc.)
  • Surveys
  • Reporting and regulatory affairs

Why is project management in clinical research important?

Clinical research involves multiple stakeholders. Project management can essentially be thought of as monitoring progress and keeping everyone involved on the same page. Project management is critical for the success of a clinical trial; it helps the different teams stay on schedule, adhere to protocol, and communicate amongst one another, as well as meet the trial objectives/targets, maintain quality standards, stay within budget, and follow regulatory requirements.

The following are three major reasons why project management in clinical research is important:

Timeline management

Project management ensures the delivery of clinical trial objectives and sub-objectives within the allocated time and budget. This is important because nearly 85% of all clinical trials experience delays.[1] Project management techniques can allow investigators to plan ahead if it looks like a deadline is not going to be met, so they can reallocate resources and priorities to accelerate the process, or otherwise notify teams responsible for tasks that would be affected by the resultant delay and adjust the timelines.

Streamline and facilitate communications

It is important for the various stakeholders involved in a clinical trial to be on the same page. Keeping all of these actors updated and facilitating communication amongst them is another task of the project management team. Lack of communication in clinical trials can have negative consequences on the quality of research.[2] An efficient project manager or management team can streamline communication and collaboration between multiple teams and departments, further increasing the transparency of the individual but interdependent operations.

Quality control (QC)

Quality control is another important aspect of clinical research project management. Quality standards are often stringent, but this is designed to protect the safety of participants and the general population. Clinical trials that fail to adhere to or meet quality standards will not be considered to have provided sufficient evidence on the effectiveness and/or safety of an investigational drug. Researchers and investigators tend to be under a lot of pressure as trials are often on tight budgets and timelines, but it is important that quality not be sacrificed in order to meet other objectives.

Project management helps sponsors/investigators manage all objectives and sub-tasks in a clinical trial while still prioritizing adherence to quality and regulatory standards. Part of the task of the project management team may even be to define internal quality standards for specific tasks, objectives, and/or teams.

What does a clinical research project manager do?

A clinical research project manager coordinates with other departments, teams, and personnel involved in the clinical trial to ensure the organized completion of clearly defined tasks. They also manage external vendors such as central laboratories or technology providers. Project managers will monitor the progress of all tasks and objectives to keep the study on track according to its protocol, including timeline and budget, and also communicate with stakeholders such as the sponsor to keep them up to date.

What is the clinical research project manager responsible for?

The responsibilities of a clinical research project manager depend on the specifics of the trial and its complexity, but they generally include the following:

  • Planning: This includes general planning of the trial, including the internal organization between departments/teams, how tasks should be executed in order to comply with regulations, how many and which sites to involve, whether external tools/solutions need to be contracted, etc.
  • Budgeting: Making sure that the study’s resources are allocated appropriately to the different teams/tasks, within the overall study budget, also providing room for unexpected costs or delays.
  • Vendor identification/selection: Negotiation with vendors, technology providers, and suppliers.
  • Scheduling: Scheduling the objectives/sub-tasks of the clinical trial and monitoring activities to make sure they are completed on time.
  • Liaising: Acting as a central point of contact for members of the project team and sponsors.
  • Task delegation: Assigning tasks to team members and updating them about their responsibilities, as well as deadlines and expectations.

What are the key topics included in a clinical research project plan?

The project manager may organize all of the above-mentioned tasks and responsibilities into a document or repository referred to as a clinical research project plan. This plan would formally outline standard protocols for aspects of the clinical research project management, such as:

  1. Timeline: The timeline should clearly outline specific tasks for each team/department, including their expected initiation and completion dates, and the project manager will ensure tasks and teams are on track. Clinical trials often get delayed, so it is useful to have protocols in place regarding how to deal with potential delays.[3]
  2. Budget: Often related to unexpected delays, it is not uncommon for projects to end up over budget. The project plan should clearly define budgets, both for teams and for individual tasks, and should outline how deviations from budgets should be dealt with.
  3. Stakeholder management: The project management plan should outline the content and dates of formal reports for keeping stakeholders updated about the trial’s progress.
  4. Documentation: The project plan should outline how documentation should be collected, organized, stored, and verified in order to ensure compliance with laws as well as ethical and clinical standards as established by the WHO and ICH guidelines for Clinical Good Practice.
  5. Site management: Although site monitoring is usually a separate responsibility in clinical trials, the project plan may include instructions and guidelines for individual study sites regarding adherence to protocol, tasks, and timelines. In addition, sites should have clear guidelines on who to contact in the case of any problems, questions, or adverse events that may arise during the trial.
  6. Data management: The project plan should specify protocol for the collection, secure storage, management, validation, and cleaning of subject information and trial data, in accordance with quality standards and applicable regulations. Proper data management ties in closely with quality assurance, and sound results require healthy data.

Tips for successful clinical research project planning and management

Here are 4 specific tips and ideas for maximizing the efficacy of project management functions in clinical research.

1. Plan with flexibility

Delays can be hard to avoid, especially in the recruitment stage, and they are costly to sponsors. Nonetheless, proper consideration of these potential delays in the timeline (i.e., allowing for some degree of flexibility) can make the difference between the delays simply setting the trial back a few weeks, or ending in the entire trial being canceled.

While delays aren’t ideal, proper planning can allow the sponsors to absorb these delays without them leading to completely missed deadlines and/or cancellation of the trial; in the end, cancellation likely represents a much more significant waste of resources than delays. The same logic can be applied to flexibility in budgeting, as delays may imply additional costs; if these are less unexpected, they can be better absorbed within the trial budget without setting it entirely off track.

2. Identify possible risks and establish mitigation strategies

Perform a thorough analysis of the protocol and utilize specialist knowledge in the fields of medicine and clinical research management to identify and create a list of risks that could arise throughout the clinical trial. Planning ahead of time will allow sponsors to respond rapidly to these risk factors and mitigate them, without having to perform lengthy analyses and coming up with mitigation strategies when it may be too late.

Some potential risks to consider include recruitment delays or low accrual, adverse events, patient dropouts, protocol breaches, problems with study drug supply or distribution, technical failures (of software systems, medical equipment, etc.), and data integrity issues, to name a few. Start with the risks that pose the greatest threat to the integrity of the study, i.e., those which would result in it being canceled, stopped, or rendering the results unusable.

3. Use project management tools

Constantly reviewing all aspects of the clinical trial is a daunting task, so the use of specialized and customizable software solutions can be helpful. There are many such solutions available, from general project management tools to dedicated clinical trial management systems (CTMS). These tools can be of significant help in managing, organizing, and overviewing all of the aspects of project management discussed previously, acting as a sort of central dashboard as well as a “safeguard” for the project management plan and tasks.

4. Leverage data automation tools and functions

Similarly to the previous point, data management is another aspect of clinical trials (and clinical trial project management) that can benefit greatly from the assistance of technological tools. Lots of data management functions, including organization, cleanup, and validation, can be streamlined or even completely automated through data processing tools, which are sometimes integrated directly into CTMS or other clinical trial monitoring solutions. The benefits of healthy data include enhanced regulatory compliance and faster progression to data analysis and results once the study data has been collected. Data can also be improved at the source through the use of electronic reporting/collection/recording methods such as:

  • Electronic patient-reported outcomes (ePRO)
  • Electronic trial master files (eTMF)
  • Electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA)
  • Electronic case report forms (eCRF)


Clinical research project management is a vital function for keeping the numerous separate yet highly interconnected parts involved in a clinical trial operating in coordination and on track with protocol, budget, timelines, and regulations. There are numerous strategies and tools that can facilitate clinical trial project management tasks and help improve clinical trial quality and speed while still ensuring patient safety and regulatory compliance.