Getting “Face” Time for Clinical Trial Recruitment Using Social Media

Lisa Calderwood, MASenior Medical Writer

Recruiting patients on a timely basis for clinical trials is a challenge. Traditional media, such as print ads or television and radio spots, are designed to target desired demographics. But a recent study finds that about 80% of clinical trials fail to meet timelines for enrolling patients.

It’s no wonder, then, that patient recruitment service providers and study sponsors are tapping into social media to find eligible patients. After all, with about 1 billion people worldwide on Facebook (1 in 7 people), the reach and immediacy of the network are undeniable. Plus, ads can be more narrowly targeted to specific regions and users than traditional media.

It appears the social media patient recruitment trend is growing. A January 2013 report by Industry Standard Research (ISR)1 surveyed 104 patient recruiting agencies globally about using social media to find eligible patients. It revealed that:

  • 17% are avoiding or abandoning social media
  • 17% are aggressively using social media and are “rolling out the strategy to many clinical trials”
  • 67% report their companies are either “evaluating” the strategy or “testing” the strategy

Gaining traction from Facebook to find emergency patients for trials

What happens when, say, a heart attack patient in the ER is too ill and/or has no one to provide informed consent for him to enroll in a trial on cardiac arrest? Well, there are alternatives. This kind of study can be granted an Exception From Informed Consent (EFIC). The EFIC guidelines—developed by the FDA and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)—say that in specific circumstances patients can be enrolled without informed consent, but the trial’s investigator and institutional review boards must provide public disclosure and local community consultation before recruiting patients. That usually has meant that EFIC trials use town hall meetings, random phone dialing, and other traditional outreach methods.

That may be changing. In a recent article in MedPage Today, Chris Kaiser reviewed a study published in Circulation, which compared using social media versus traditional methods to comply with public disclosure requirements for EFIC trials. The trials, conducted by the University of Alabama (UAB) School of Medicine, placed targeted Facebook ads for studies related to cardiac arrest and trauma. Those viewers who selected the ads were led to the study’s website. The UAB authors provided a compelling cost/benefit analysis of their social media campaign versus the use of community meetings for another EFIC trial.

The Facebook campaign cost $1,000 and led to 5.1 million viewer hits ($0.0002 per view). That translated to 437 visitors to the study’s website ($2.29/visit). The traditional campaign cost $8,000 for 39 community meetings, with 465 attendants at $17.24/person.

It’s clear that social media not only has applications for finding eligible patients able to provide informed consent, but also for gaining community support to enroll patients for emergency research studies in which informed consent may not be a viable option. The possibilities are intriguing!

AHE Clinical Trials has expertise in creating engaging digital platforms and traditional media for your patient recruitment campaigns, retention efforts, and patient education needs. Contact Brian Schaechter, Director, Business Development, Clinical Trial Market. Phone: 908-483-4241 E-mail:

1ISR Report. Social Media: Best Practices and Strategic Use in Patient Recruitment,January 8, 2013. 104 global respondents.

Also see:

MedPage Today.  Facebook May Help Recruit for Cardiac Trials.

 Stephens, SW, et al. Preliminary experience with social media for community consultation and public disclosure in exception from informed consent trials.Circulation 2013; 128: 267-270.