10 clinical trial recruitment strategies that work

The best clinical trial recruitment strategies start by focusing on the patient perspective. From there, it helps to get creative. A reliable clinical trial patient recruitment plan incorporates a range of outreach methods designed to reach patients quickly and efficiently while providing them with the information they need to take the next step. 

For both prospective participants and study teams, time is critical when it comes to clinical research. Patients can't wait for better treatment options, and by some estimates, each day that a drug development program is delayed costs the sponsor

$37,000 in operational costs. The clinical trial recruitment strategies below are designed to help sponsors meet their goals on or ahead of schedule and connect patients with opportunities that are right for them.

Understand what matters most to patients before starting recruitment

Ideally, the patient voice is included in a study's design to ensure that it meets real patient needs. If a trial doesn't include endpoints that are meaningful to patients, it makes recruitment even more challenging. 

At Antidote, we conducted a survey to learn more about patient preference toward different types of clinical trials: observational, interventional, trials for a treatment addressing side effects, and trials for entirely new medications. In a whitepaper, we analyzed responses from 4,000 patients about how both condition area and race affect both patient willingness to take part and the types of trials patients would consider.

Our findings have implications for how different kinds of clinical trials are marketed to patients, and suggest questions to ask during focus groups with patients before a trial launches. For example, patients living with chronic conditions were less likely than oncology patients or chronic/acute patients to participate in a trial for a new drug or therapy. It's important for these trials, then, to highlight the benefits of taking part and how the investigational treatment may be an improvement to existing options. Because it can take time to find the right treatment for chronic conditions, such as lupus, patients may be less interested in taking the risk of trying something new. 

If you're working with a patient recruitment company, ask about how they differentiate their outreach approaches depending on the trial condition area. A strategic agency will keep these patient preferences top of mind when creating outreach materials and selecting their targeting.

Share your trial with local health care providers

Another patient-centric approach to recruitment is to connect with primary care providers and specialists. According to a survey from CISCRP, 64% of patients would prefer to hear about clinical trial opportunities from their healthcare providers. 

Consider putting together outreach materials with pertinent trial information designed specifically for doctors. If your site has relationships with local hospitals or other healthcare providers in the area, use your network to spread the word about your trial. You can also reach patients at point-of-care through agencies that provide advertising in doctor's offices.

Connect with nonprofit partners and patient advocates

Working with local nonprofit partners and others who engage with advocacy communities can help you reach patients in your area who may not be in your site's database already. Patients are also more likely to trust information about trials they receive through nonprofits organizations compared with ads, our research has found.

The cost of working with partners varies: some organizations may be interested in promoting your trial for a fee, while others may offer free or low-cost promotions. For example, you may be able to join a local health fair or other events to promote your trial. Or, a nonprofit organization may be interested in promoting your trial to their email list for a fee.

In a blog post, Antidote’s Head of Partnerships, Lindsey Wahlstrom-Edwards, said: “Advocacy groups help shape and set the research agenda and open up dialogues around where needs are not being met in terms of current treatment options. With a deep understanding of the patient population, they can also be key players in helping develop new methods of engaging patients in research. Another critical role they play is making sure that patients are informed of the results of studies and surveys they take part in; they publish results in ways that are easy to understand, or organize patient summits to share findings and make sure that people understand the implications. And, of course, patient advocacy groups are always advocating with lawmakers to allocate funding for research investments.”

Work with a patient-centric clinical trial recruitment company that takes a diverse approach to outreach

Of course, the definition of "patient centric" can vary from person to person, but when evaluating clinical trial recruitment companies, have questions prepared that get to the heart of the company's relationship with patients. Do outreach materials they've created in the past reflect the patient population? Do they respond to questions via social media platforms or email from patients about the trial, and how responsive are they? Does the vendor have relationships with patient advocates or other groups? Understanding a recruitment company's relationship with patients can help you ascertain whether their methods will connect you with engaged patients.

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Run digital recruitment campaigns that meet patients where they are

Digital advertising offers trial teams the opportunity to reach patients beyond site databases, and use messaging that best connects with those who are interested.

A major overarching benefit of digital patient recruitment is the ability to reach patients wherever they are online, including Facebook, Twitter, Quora, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, and search platforms like Google and Bing. At any given time, 3.5 billion social media users in the world are scrolling through the vast news feeds of the web. It’s easy to understand why these digital platforms make sense for engaging patients around clinical trials. Interest and keyword targeting allows marketers to find patients who are actively searching for treatment options for their conditions. 

Digital advertising can also give patients time to consider taking part and send reminders their way. While a research site may only send one email and a reminder to their database about a trial opportunity, through cookie tracking, patients who visit a landing page about your trial and don't take an action can be re-targeted and have another opportunity to sign up.

Provide lab service options

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, finding ways to be innovative with clinical trial patient recruitment has been the name of the game. One trend we’re seeing is the rise of virtual trials, which has made it easier and safer for more people to participate in research. If a study is largely virtual, location becomes less of an issue.

With a decentralized trial, while technology is key, it’s also critical that any necessary in-person aspects can happen locally, removing the need to travel to a particular site. With this flexible approach, these types of trials invite many more patients to the table. Incorporating direct-to-patient lab services paves the way for people from a wider geographical net to participate. Partnering with local lab services can also speed up recruitment for complex studies, whose inclusion and exclusion criteria commonly call for patients to meet the thresholds of certain lab values in order to qualify for a study.

Contact patients who already match inclusion and exclusion criteria whenever possible

Reaching patients who aren't qualified for your trial isn't just costly – it can be disheartening for patients, as well. Unfortunately, when patients are told they don't qualify for a specific clinical trial, they might be hesitant to search for a new trial. One way to help improve patient eligibility is to work with services that can screen for challenging inclusion and exclusion criteria in advance. For example, lab test and Electronic Health Record (EHR) companies have access to blood test information and other data patients are unlikely to know off-hand. Reaching out to patients who already meet these requirements can help improve the patient experience and save time at the site level.

Screen for multiple trials at a time 

If you're running multiple trials for the same condition area, one way to save time and money is to screen for all of the trials at once. This can be done by working with a patient recruitment company that creates online pre-screeners and can direct patients based on their location and responses to questions related to inclusion and exclusion criteria. Screening for multiple trials at once can help more interested patients connect with research opportunities while speeding up the recruitment process.

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Use patient follow-up services 

While clinical trials are top-of-mind for those running recruitment, for patients, your trial may be just one more email in their inboxes and consideration in their busy lives. Automated follow-up emails or text messages can remind patients to take the next step. Some patient recruitment companies also offer follow-up services at the site level, so you can stay on top of the progress patients are making and flag sites that are slow to respond. This type of follow-up can help lower costs by reducing the number of patients who start the process and don't follow through, and save time by proactively reminding patients and sites to take the next step.

Consider where patient retention fits in

Trial teams sometimes view patient recruitment and retention as separate projects, but they can also be considered in tandem. For example, engagement through electronic patient-reported outcome tools (ePRO) can help patients feel more committed to participating in a trial. Home visits to replace trips to a site or the opportunity to talk with doctors remotely can also help improve retention. Because these features can also help make it easier to participate in a trial, it can make sense to highlight them in outreach materials promoting your trial, as well.

An Antidote, we use a diverse approach we call precision recruitment to quickly identify eligible patients and beat timelines. Learn more about our methods by downloading our case studies.