Trial turbine: Social media powers up recruiting and disseminating


Now that social media has become a primary way for patients to shop around for healthcare, clinical trial managers may be missing the boat if they’re not optimizing it to recruit and inform participants.

It’s safe to say most Americans’ healthcare decisions are now influenced in some way by social media. A massive seven in 10 Americans are now social media users. Further, Pew recently found 72 percent of adult internet users have sought health info online, 26 percent have observed others’ online comments on health or medical issues online and 16 percent have checked online to see if others share their health concerns.

Aside from its ability to reach key audiences — even hard-to-reach populations such as low-income adults, young adults and adolescents — social media marketing can incorporate a mix of free posts and paid ads to be very cost-effective in finding trialists. Further, in a world rife with fake news and misleading ads, many consumers feel more comfortable making choices after they’ve used such outlets to vet the opinions of others in their networks.

“Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn make it easy to connect for opinions and advice,” notes a recent blog by the Southern Medical Association. “It might even be easier to trust a casual acquaintance than a faceless organization.”

As such, many CROs are taking full advantage of social media for marketing strategies. Some examples of how it’s being optimized:

  • To recruit for upcoming studies. When audiences are correctly targeted, a combination of free posts and paid ads on venues such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube can be highly successful in pointing potential trialists to recruitment websites. Facebook clearly recognizes the enormousness of that market, and has hosted two major presentations this year for trial recruiters. As of 2014, 11 percent of all clinical trials were already using social media for recruitment, according to a Tufts Center study.

Multiple case studies support the effectiveness of such campaigns. In one trial recently cited by the NIH, social media and internet resources were credited with drawing 18 percent of the participants. Artcraft points to a successful $1,000 Facebook campaign that drew 437 visitors to a study website at $2.29/visit. Novartis Oncology has been productive in sending visitors to its trial information website via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. And on, Linda Banks points to another case in which ads on Google, Facebook and YouTube boosted traffic to an accompanying website by 6,474 percent, such that enrollment for a trial addressing non-small cell lung cancer was completed in four months.

Overall, pharma and health care marketers are expected to spend $3.1 billion annually on digital marketing by 2020, eMarketer predicts — a 43 percent increase over this year.

  • As information portals from managers to trialists. This function can be effective during and after recruitment. Often study sponsors can work with patient advocacy groups to disseminate info, then once a study starts they can share information and instructions in real time, report on progress, suggest ways of dealing with side effects and/or direct patients to additional resources.

  • As venues for sharing among trial participants. Tracking trialist comments can be helpful in better understanding the patient experience and noting issues that may need addressing. Such outlets may also make trialists feel comforted and less isolated, keeping them in trials longer. “Today, patients check in on the internet and share their experiences about everything important to them, and health is a huge part of that,” writes Ido Hadari in ClinicalTrialLeader. “Social media has opened the door for patients and researchers to understand what is happening in real time within a trial.”

Of course, marrying social media with clinical trials comes with challenges. Not only is the information shared subject to myriad FDA regulations and NIH guidelines, but trialists can skew the integrity of a trial by sharing too much information with each other. Further, some managers are uneasy about publicizing adverse effects, while others are concerned about lacking the time or resources for two-way communication that would allow for quick responses to publicized issues. Still, much of that can be negated by keeping a close eye on legal and ethical restrictions and keeping trialists well informed about why certain information shouldn’t be shared.

“Historically, any new wave of change with a huge potential has essentially followed the same pattern of glowing opportunities intermingled with risks,” writes Saswata Ray, author of a study on that subject posted this year by the NIH. “The call of the hour is to work faster to build up governance, which can give a global platform for better understanding and usage of social media without challenging the ethical and legal boundaries.

BlogLindsey Kuhl