Five Simple Ways to Improve Clinical Trial Recruitment

By LB Herbert, Ph.D.
Executive Director of Research & Analytics, Health Union

There is a lot of information available on how to set up a clinical trial protocol, how to recruit or find patients for a clinical trial, or even how to conduct the trial once patients are enrolled. However, advice on how to guide patients from the point when they raise their hands as interested in a study to the point of consent and enrollment is few and far between. This process in the recruitment funnel is crucial, yet often overlooked, and fuels the challenge of timely recruitment for studies.

Health Union often partners with study sponsors and contract research organizations (CROs) to supplement clinical trial recruitment efforts. Based on this experience, here are five simple suggestions for CROs to help guide patients from the point at which they express interest in a study through to completion:

1) Follow up in a timely manner

The self-referral process is not always easy for patients. They may call a study center only to be met with an interactive voice response (IVR) system or asked to leave a voicemail, else email the study center if that is an option. If the re-contact process takes several days, the interested patient may perceive this delay as a lack of qualification. The worst-case scenario is that patients use this time to possibly read “myths” about clinical trials on the internet and change their mind about potential participation.

2) Make a good first impression

Often third-party call centers are involved in recruitment or scheduling for a local study and may be responsible for managing patients’ self-referral to the study, rather than a medical center or doctor’s office. Patients may be confused when the company contacting them (or re-contacting) is not the same as the healthcare provider listed on recruitment materials, or if the call center is also associated with a market research company. Patients may hesitate to continue when contacting the study center upon hearing a greeting or voicemail that does not match the study name or provider as listed in recruitment materials. Similarly, in an era when caller ID is a crucial factor in determining if someone answers the phone, receiving a call from a company whose caller ID is blocked or misaligned with the recruitment materials, may cause patients not to answer. Be cognizant of these subtle cues in the patient experience, as they can encourage or discourage patients’ continued interest in your study.

3) Design a user-friendly online experience

Many studies utilize a website or an online screening survey to inform and pre-qualify interested patients. However, if this screener has a poor user experience, asks questions that are difficult for the patient to answer themselves, or requests too much personal information, patients may not complete the interaction. When first engaging with a patient, online screeners should avoid asking for an email address or to opt-in for a mailing list of other study opportunities; rather the focus should be on the current study of interest. Also, if the website or online materials about a study are poorly designed or appears more marketing-driven, this could be a detractor for patients.

4) Treat patients as people

Don’t lose sight of keeping the empathic, human element in a clinical study. Keep in mind that the subjects you are recruiting often have a serious health condition, which most likely comes with symptoms that impact their quality of life and may interfere with their daily activities. Patients may need to reschedule a screening appointment or have difficulties completing paperwork or accessing online forms – and study staff should be prepared to accommodate patients’ needs. Demonstrate care and concern for the people who may become patients in your research studies by making it easy for them to ask for and receive help.

5) Ease patients’ fears

Over the years, Health Union’s research shows that patients express an interest in clinical trials due to the potential benefit for themselves, as well as for others who may benefit. Despite the interest, patients may still have some trepidation and fears of the untested treatment, potential side effects, or stopping their current treatment. From initial contact, study staff should ask patients about any concerns they may have and take the time to listen to the responses – building patient trust that trial staff will have their best interests in mind throughout the entire study process. Proactively asking questions about fears and concerns helps avoid a situation where patients feel they have to search online for answers to their questions or concerns about the trial or its process, to avoid being misled by internet rumors. Provide educational materials such as pamphlets, FAQs, or a patient-friendly website, that include content on what to expect during the trial, the process, potential benefits as well as potential risks, and how to contact trial staff with any questions or concerns at any time.

Reaching potential patients for a clinical trial is becoming easier with the advancements in online technologies and social media, enabling study sponsors and CROs to meet patients where they are at any time of day. Every patient expressing interest is a valuable asset, particularly those clinical trials recruiting from small populations of patients. Organizations put a lot of time and effort into planning and managing a study; taking time to attend to these five details will help to ensure interested patients stay engaged for timely recruitment.