eTMF Automation Strategies

Over the past 10 years, the Clinical Trial Master File, or TMF, has evolved into a powerful and digital “single record of truth” known as the eTMF. This evolution of the eTMF was driven by the industry’s practical need to digitize all the essential documents of a clinical trial. 

An eTMF itself is not an automation solution for managing essential documents. Think of eTMF as a highly organized electronic file cabinet. Even if you assign users rights to upload, approve or reject document versions, essential document workflow is still missing. Most eTMFs cannot track a document’s history, its edits or any collaboration around each document. That leaves the entire essential document workflow in manual mode without an automation solution.

Why is eTMF Automation Important?

eTMF automation represents an opportunity to cut millions of dollars in expense while ensuring that clinical trial regulations are followed with technological precision. When we talk about eTMF automation, we are talking about automating all the manual processes that move essential documents back and forth from the first site startup of a trial until the study is closed. eTMF automation must support digital document exchanges between the trial sponsor and the trial investigators. 

eTMF automation workflow begins with a premise that there shall never be more than one copy of a document, regardless of the status of a document, or the number of collaborators that are involved. In an automated workflow, documents are not downloaded or uploaded by users. Instead, users work together in an online portal designed for clinical trial collaboration. 

Automation improves trial speed, CRA productivity, site satisfaction, and provides a perfect audit trail of documents on their way into the eTMF. Automation also enables sites and sponsors to fulfill regulatory requirements that require sites to maintain their own TMF that mirrors the sponsor’s eTMF but keeps patient data hidden from the sponsor. 

A typical study can involve millions of documents, hundreds of sites, weeks of collaboration, multiple revisions, eSignatures, wet signatures, complicated regulatory requirements, and many associates to manage the tons of paper that all end up in your eTMF. None of these processes require paper documents in today’s world.

4 Strategies to Automate your eTMF

There are 4 possible strategies you can consider to automate the complex and essential document workflow of a clinical trial. 

  1. Wait and see if your eTMF vendor develops an automation product in the future
  1. Build in-house software customized to meet your company’s specific needs
  1. Contract with a large consulting company to lead the project and develop a solution
  1. Organize a project team to evaluate commercial software solutions

The Wait and See Strategy: Waiting to see if new automation solutions are delivered by your eTMF vendor will protect you from making a wrong automation decision today, but it won’t help you solve challenging compliance hurdles that are trending toward more auditing of essential document compliance in eTMFs and ITMFs.

The Build In-house Strategy: Building in-house software has some advantages, including more control over the software requirements and eventual ownership of a finished system without depending on a software vendor. But a disadvantage to this approach is that it could end up costing more money than commercial software and not provide the same product maturity a commercial product can provide.

The Consultant Strategy: This approach is most effective when your goal is to transform your business processes and redeploy human capital to become more productive and therefore more competitive.  Consultants offer their clients the opportunity to rethink organizing people and processes. They are capable of making recommendations that should put your company on par or ahead of the competition. On the other hand, over the last decade, the number of consulting companies that specialize in creating software solutions for their clients has declined. More often than not, the technical and business challenges of a large company are mature and need only a little fine-tuning, not reengineering. Licensing commercial software has become a standard approach as companies try to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.

The Commercial Software Strategy: Organizing a team to evaluate commercial software solutions is a great strategy for multiple reasons. By watching a demonstration of commercial software designed to support eTMF automation, you gain insight into the dozens of ideas that other clinical trial sponsors have added to that product over the years. Additionally, you can view commercial software as a viable alternative to any other strategy. Look for a product that can save your organization money, improve your service level to sites, and always allow documents to be audit ready. 

What Exactly Gets Automated?

Specific regulatory requirements must be adhered to during a clinical trial and essential document requirements can get complicated. An eTMF automation product must at a minimum automate the following document processes:

  • Assemble and distribute the correct study startup package to each site, regardless of country, language, or local requirements.
  • Support each document’s essential workflow requirement without the need to download or print any required document.
  • Create a clinical site TMF that mirrors the sponsor’s eTMF and protects private patient data from being reported to the sponsor.
  • Distribute safety reports to every applicable trial site, collecting acknowledgement electronic signatures from those sites where it is required
  • Replace the current trial Protocol with an amended protocol document, collecting acknowledgement statements from every site.
  • Convert a site’s paper documents with wet signatures into digital documents without the need for a scanner.


Each essential document has specific requirements for sending, receiving, acknowledging, collaborating, signing and storing. Moving those documents back and forth using postal mail, fax machines, or email messages is not automation. No matter how efficient your manual processes might be, in a manual system of SOPs, it requires a lot of human effort to keep essential documents organized and moving forward during a trial. Time, money and frustrated clinical sites make manual processes undesirable in a modern clinical trial.

InnovoCommerce has worked with several of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies for the past 7 years to design and build a commercial software solution that fulfills all the requirements of eTMF automation. Our product, the Study Collaboration Portal, plugs into any commercial eTMF system, and gives it the power it needs to automate its essential document workflow. Regardless of which strategy you choose to automate your eTMF, a deep dive into our commercial software will give your team the clarity they need to make an eTMF automation decision.

Top 10 Reasons to Automate your eTMF

Novo Nordisk and Boehringer Ingelheim have automated the distribution and collection of regulatory documents from study startup to study closeout. We asked both companies to make the business case for paperless essential document workflow. Their feedback inspired this article: “The Top 10 Reasons to Automate Your Essential Documents.” 

(Both Novo Nordisk and Boehringer Ingelheim use software from InnovoCommerce to automate their regulatory document workflow) 

#1 – Update study documents faster 

It is always faster to update a digital document than a paper document. Consider the time it takes to print an update to a study protocol, insert the update into the protocol while archiving the old version, and documenting those changes in an audit trail. Sponsor study teams and site staff could spend an hour on a task that would have taken 10 seconds in a paperless trial. Keep in mind that in this example, over the course of a Study, the Protocol gets amended multiple times. So, going paperless has an absolute speed advantage over paper. 

#2 – Retire old document versions automatically 

When you hold two paper versions of the same document in your hand, it can be difficult to identify which document includes the latest changes. During a clinical trial, paperless systems retire old documents as the new document versions are published, so you never have to discern which document is the newest version. Paperless binders at a trial site are always up to date. This simplifies CRA monitoring visits since there is no need to review a traditional paper binder during their routine site visit. 

#3 – Harmonize the document distribution process 

The success of paper processes is highly dependent on people to stay organized. The standard operating procedure for one site could be vastly different at other sites. Additionally, the sense of urgency to keep paper processes moving along varies from site to site. When automated processes are put in place, they keep things moving along according to a unified process configured in the software system itself. 

#4 – Speed up Study Start-up at every site 

The fact is, study documents are complicated. Paper complicates distribution because paper moves slowly. And preparing a paper package requires meticulous attention to detail, reviews by individuals, and finally some form of shipping and receiving. For the study site, paper is received with all the other paper that is used to run a business and is processed as time permits when patients are not waiting in the lobby. But electronic study documents move at light speed and are always in a highly organized state, dictated by the workflow of the software system that moves the documents along. This shortens the time for starting up the study at the sites, and site staff have more time to focus on patient recruitment and care. 

#5 – Decouple document collection from site monitoring 

Unlike paper documents, electronic document distribution and collection is decoupled from site monitoring. Using an electronic study document exchange system, the status of each document is always known. There is no reason to call or visit the site to check the status of a document or to make sure the site has filed all the paper artifacts correctly.  This saves time not only for monitors, but also for the busy study site staff.

#6 – Find every document in one place 

The world of paper is a complex set of processes and places. Most of these processes have to do with moving the paper and most of the places are ad hoc repositories (for example an email in-box), until eventually every paper document ends up in the correct place. Electronic systems move the study documents using workflows and keep every document in the same repository while moving the document through each stage using distribution requirements. This gives sponsors a huge cost savings while ensuring there is only one record of truth pertaining to all regulatory study documents.  

#7 – Improve site satisfaction in a big way 

By any measure, the elimination of paper at sites increases site satisfaction. Sites that use electronic systems provided by the sponsor or CRO never need to wonder what actions are needed by the sponsor, CRO or the site staff. Tasks are presented at the correct time and when action is required (like acknowledge or sign). Site staff is never asked to move regulatory documents from one place to another. They never need to print a document to sign it, and they never need to file a document since all of this happens automatically in an essential document shared system.  

#8 – Reduce time required for Quality Assurance 

In a paperless system, documents are distributed, edited, and collected within the system, creating an indisputable audit trail. The dates, times, user identity, and various metadata of a document are recorded and updated automatically. This removes a significant QA burden by eliminating some QA checkpoints, and enables the quality assurance staff to review and approve hundreds more documents each day.

#9 – Achieve a contemporaneous eTMF 

The reason ICH introduced the concept of contemporaneousness is that in the past, many paper artifacts were found to contain curious details. For example, a signed document that shows the signer’s receipt date is later than the signers signature date. Paper-based processes are often paused for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the clinical trial, leaving staff to try and catch up on work by signing with dates that “should” have been met. This can result in a sloppy TMF and could give regulatory inspectors a reason to look further into a trial’s accuracy.

#10 – Solve the completeness challenge 

The biggest challenge to maintaining a state of completeness during a study can be managing paper documents. Paper by its very nature is an offline product that exists outside of the clinical trial itself. As the sites get added to the trial or removed from the trial, the complexity of tracking documents increases substantially. TMF managers even create “place holders” in their eTMF for paper documents they expect to receive, and then run reports showing the place holders so they can contact sites to request the missing documents. In a properly designed electronic system, the expected count of the study documents based on currently active sites is always known along with the actual completion status of the document at any point in time. The completeness challenge is solved because documents are never lost, delayed, or missing. As soon as a document is signed, it appears in the QC work area, ready for inclusion in your eTMF. 


The transformation from a paper-based system to a paperless model in clinical trials is a goal at many clinical sponsors and research organizations. Connecting your eTMF to a clinical trial automation product is key to this transformation. The software product that helped achieve this goal at Novo Nordisk and Boehringer Ingelheim is the Study Collaboration Portal and can be further researched at