5 essential rules for clinical trial patient recruitment

Since the first controlled clinical trial way back in 1747, researchers have needed volunteers to take part. We don't know how difficult it was for James Lind to find 12 sailors willing to try a treatment for scurvy, but we're sure he had to make a strong pitch that focused on all the benefits to participate.

While the need for smart messaging has remained constant, everything else about patient recruitment has changed, especially the way patients now hear about clinical trials through digital advertising. Our essential rules for clinical trial patient recruitment, however, aren't just about technology: They also require that research teams engage patients every step of the way. In our experience, these five guidelines help sponsors save time on patient recruitment while creating a positive experience for patients.

Get patient input as early as possible

Ideally, patients should be involved in the initial design of a clinical trial. Patient engagement ensures that a trial addresses real patient needs, and that inclusion and exclusion criteria balances scientific requirements with the real-world experiences of patients. Patient advocacy groups and health nonprofits are great choices for input on study design.

Patients can also help identify elements of a trial that appeal most to them and their symptoms, valuable information for developing outreach materials. In addition, some recruitment companies also work with patient influencers or other advocates for their support in spreading the word about a trial opportunity.

Sponsors have, at times, been hesitant to engage with patient advocacy groups for clinical trial recruitment, says Mary Rose Keller, VP of Clinical Operations at Heron Therapeutics.

"A lot of diseases have multiple advocacy groups. Sometimes sponsors have anxiety about being associated with one advocacy group versus another," she told Clinical Leader. "They also don't feel they can adequately serve all of the groups. And, let's face it, once you put a group together, they can become political in some way. That is something sponsors can be leery of."

Working with a recruitment company that has relationships with patient advocacy groups can help sponsors access input from these organizations.

Include diverse messaging and imagery across all channels

Related to the importance of including the patient perspective in trial design and recruitment campaign development, make sure your trial uses outreach materials that visually reflect the diversity of your patient population. Patients are more likely to connect with imagery that reflects who they are and what matters to them. Successful campaigns and effective advertising must reflect the real-world patient population not just in their imagery, but in copy, as well. Involving communities of color into the process of creating recruitment strategies and materials is an important step in making sure campaigns resonate with diverse audiences. 

Recruitment materials (advertisements, content, etc.) should incorporate feedback from patients themselves as well as echo the sentiments that patients are sharing amongst themselves. Before submitting recruitment materials to an Institutional Review Board (IRB), work with patient advocacy groups and individual patients to review the materials to ensure they will resonate with that patient population. 

What are patients talking about online when they’re not at a site or a doctor’s office? Learning about your target patient communities when they’re not in a medical setting is necessary to understanding a greater picture of their lives. Read posts in Facebook groups and engage with Instagram hashtags to learn important things about patients, such as attitudes toward clinical research, what treatment regimens individuals are using, and symptom management.

Patient recruitment companies are a great asset when it comes to developing creative messaging and materials. If you’re planning on working with a patient recruitment company, ask to see examples of their outreach materials from prior, preferably from the same condition area. Did their images match the demographics of their target audience? And did they include a variety of options that spoke to a range of patient experiences?

Incorporate site-based recruitment alternatives from the beginning

In an ideal world, research sites for clinical trials would already have all of the patients needed for the trial in their database, ready and able to participate. In reality, this simply isn’t the case. Digital approaches and other clinical trial patient recruitment efforts shouldn't be a backup plan — they should be incorporated into your budget and planning from the start.

These days, there are so many ways to think about marketing: Social media; Interstitial video ads; Native banner placements; Paid search; Radio spots; TV commercials; Newspaper and magazine spreads. From connecting with global advocacy groups to using digital outreach solutions that allow for geo-targeting, clinical trial recruitment companies use a range of methods to capture the attention of patients and motivate them to take the next step. 

Digital marketing campaigns should be at the forefront of any clinical trial marketing plan. At any given time, over 3.5 billion users in the world are scrolling through platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, and more. One overarching benefit of digital patient recruitment is the ability to reach patients wherever they are online; knowing where your audience engages with content that will drive clinical trial recruitment is crucial. 

In addition, digital marketing is effective in part because it's simple to test out language to zero in on messaging that resonates best with a given audience — but it also takes time. Short timelines for "rescue trials" give recruitment companies less time to gather data to find what works best, which can raise the cost of recruiting patients.

Activating site recruitment alternatives early on can also help sponsors shorten recruitment timelines. While simply meeting deadlines feels like accomplishment enough, meeting trial goals faster can move an entire study schedule forward and bring potential treatments to patients sooner.

Plan on your plans changing

As critical as digital outreach can be to a patient recruitment plan, it's also a space that's ever in flux. Though Facebook is currently the most popular social network for placing ads, the company is reimagining its targeted advertising experience, which will impact all industries. 

Chances are, any new platform will include ads at some point, so it's important to plan for a range of outreach options – and for them to need adjusting, especially for longer trials. While the need for IRB approvals may limit options, patient recruiters can create flexible materials like banner ads that can be used across platforms. 

Recruitment companies with extensive experience in digital marketing also know to provide IRBs with a range of outreach angles, so they can optimize their campaigns and find the messaging that resonates best.

Consider end-to-end recruitment needs

Working with a patient recruitment company that also offers site follow-up services can also help improve the patient experience. If a patient fills out a pre-screener online but then doesn't hear about next steps for a few days, they may feel frustrated or potentially lose interest in the trial altogether.

To illustrate the point in marketing terms, Hubspot reveals that companies who follow up with a potential customer inquiry within an hour are seven times more likely to have meaningful conversations with decision-making than those who wait longer. While the Hubspot study referred to business, it can translate to everyday life, too. People are people: When we express interest in something, we want to hear back sooner rather than later.

In addition to creating pre-screeners and promoting your trial, some patient recruitment companies will also call patients to ask additional questions and help direct them to a nearby site, if they're eligible. Antidote actively works directly with sites to learn about which patients make their site visits or become unresponsive so our team can offer additional support if needed.

Looking for patient recruitment support? Antidote uses precision recruitment to reach the right patients with the right messaging. Get in touch to learn more about our unique approach to clinical trial patient recruitment.