Trial, or tribulation? Marketers look to big data for study recruitment

On one side are the pharma companies with dollars in hand, seeking viable clinical trial subjects who can help them add another tool to the world’s arsenal of therapeutic drugs. On the other side are privacy advocates lobbying for even more regulation because they’re fearful about medical history exposure.

Both have valid points of view. But the medical community’s inability to find qualified trial subjects is one reason FDA approval for potentially impactful drugs can take disproportionately long. Though the number of trials registered on nearly tripled between 2000 and 2014, 80 percent failed to meet enrollment timelines — and in general, 50 percent of proposed trials enroll one or no patients.

“For each day a company goes beyond the planned deadline for a clinical trial, that company could be losing as much as $600,000 in foregone sales of smaller products and as much as $8 million on blockbuster drugs,” notes a recent Industry Standard Research report. “Sponsors and CROs are looking to any and all means by which to increase the rate of patient enrollment.”

Pharma marketers are addressing that challenge by seeking ways (some of which are disruptive) to harness big data, maximize online and mobile channels and more clearly communicate trial details. And they’re gradually making headway. The ISR study suggests about 35 percent of trial candidates (up from 28 percent a couple years ago) are now directed into trials by marketing efforts, patient networks or patient-recruitment companies, rather than physicians or hospitals.

At the Clinical Trial Innovation Summit in Boston May 9–11, a sub-conference sponsored by Cambridge Healthtech Institute gathered leaders across pharma, biotech and academia for discussion and case studies on harnessing existing clinical data to advance trials. A preview pointed to biomarker data, genomic data, EHRs, claims data, real-world data and clinical trial data as tools, noting the need for “an enterprise-wide framework for trust and policies for access and utilization, as well as an established infrastructure.”

Because that framework is still on the horizon, pharma marketers remain limited in their recruitment methods. But here are ways they’re making inroads:

  • Global biopharmaceutical company UBS has accessed clean and recent medical and pharmacy claims data gathered from nearly 90 million patient lives via Express Scripts, using geo-targeted recruitment campaigns to refer patients. Response rates have been as high as 40 percent.
  • Global healthcare company Novartis used a software application to mine EMRs, working with leading academic institutions to arrange consultation and identify trial participants.
  • Last year Apple launched iOS software framework Research Kit that gives users simple diagnostic challenges via mobile (i.e. tapping out rhythms on the touch screen to test for Parkinson’s Disease) as part of clinical testing. The app uses iPhone sensors including an accelerometer and a microphone.
  • Websites are increasingly implemented for recruitment and to delineate study details. Patients are sent to the sites when purchasing medicines related to the studied disease. Some, like, are especially useful because they cater to patient interaction via chat, blogs, bulletin boards and email. Users are more likely to act upon messages received through such networks than from ads.
  • Social network channels geared toward specific medical conditions can be used flexibly and inexpensively to share study info and encourage participation. In many cases, info via social media reaches the family or caregivers first.
  • Common media-buying platforms for global clinical trials include Google (Adwords, GDN/Doubleclick), Bing Ads, Yahoo, AOL Advertising and Facebook ads. Facebook and Google ads typically produce some of the highest conversion numbers.
  • New HDP Health interface Trial Match uses personal health information voluntarily provided to NIH site to match candidates with pending trials. The trialists can note their areas of interest. TrialMatch founders are considering integrating the system with 23andme’s API and other sources to expand available data.
  • Gamification strategies may be a future trend for recruitment ads on digital. “When these patients respond to a call-to-action, healthcare and monetary incentives that stoke gaming curiosity and create altruistic, viral behaviors could be implemented,” notes Kurt Mussina on

As pharma grapples with finding viable trial candidates, it’s important that innovative marketers continue to navigate the tightrope between privacy regulation and access to big data. After all, the issue has global implications for the future of healthcare.

“Hiding within those mounds of data is knowledge that could change the life of a patient — or change the world,” notes Atul Butte, executive director of clinical informatics for the University of California’s Health Sciences and Services.