October 20th, 2016

Clinical Trial Recruitment Success Demands a Patient-First Approach


In the age of the empowered patient, engagement and education across a wide range of digital platforms is key.

When it comes to patient recruitment for clinical trials, I think we can all agree that the process has become far too time-consuming and expensive. Today, approximately 29% of the time spent conducting a clinical trial is dedicated to patient recruitment, making it the most time-intensive part of the process. Considering a typical phase III clinical trial lasts two to four years, that places the average enrollment period somewhere within the range of 7-14 months.

Even with all this time invested, about 20% of trials never manage to successfully enroll a single patient, and 37% of all sites in a given trial fail to meet their enrollment targets. For every day that a trial’s completion is delayed, the sponsors stands to lose upwards of $600,000 in opportunity costs.

Many of these problems can be traced back to a single issue: the industry’s unwillingness to adapt to evolving consumer expectations and preferences. As more and more patients turn to the internet as their primary resource for both symptom research and weighing their various treatment options, they’re becoming more empowered than ever before. Highly targeted digital advertising campaigns are, of course, a great way to capitalize on this fact and reach these “active” patients. However, simply getting your trial in front of a prospective participant isn’t always enough – when it comes to generating a real, measurable uptick in your campaign’s conversion rate, patient education is the key.

Using Education As a Strategic Advantage

The vast majority of adults who have heard about clinical trials cite the internet as their primary source for information (compared to the 29% who cited traditional media sources). But simply hearing about a clinical trial isn’t necessarily enough to convince someone to sign up.

According to recent research, the reason most commonly cited by patients for not pursuing treatment through a clinical trial is fear – more specifically, the fear of a reduced quality of life. Many also believe that an “experimental treatment” will be inferior to FDA-approved medications or procedures, or that they may even received a placebo instead of an actual treatment.

On an even more fundamental level, many prospective patients simply aren’t aware that clinical trials are a viable treatment option for their given condition. According to NIH, as many as 85% of cancer patients are unaware of their ameliorative benefits. To further illustrate the gravity of this missed opportunity, consider this: 75% of those patients said they’d be willing to enroll if they’d known more.

Outreach in Action

If you need more proof that the quality of your patient education and outreach strategies will have a direct link to your overall outcomes and ROI, consider the following example: a manufacturer recruiting for a clinical trial concerning treatment of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC) built out a comprehensive digital ad campaign on Google and Facebook, backed by an informative, high-quality website and engaging video content on YouTube.

With this comprehensive approach (digital advertising, social media, and educational content), traffic to the trial website increased by a whopping 6,474% within the first three months, generating approximately 70,000 visits from prospective trial participants who reviewed one or more pages of content. As a result of these efforts, the trial had reached full enrollment within four months.

Virtually every clinical trial continues to rely on traditional recruitment methods, and I’m not proposing that they cease those practices altogether – traditional media, physician referrals, patient databases, etc. certainly have a place within any comprehensive recruitment strategy. However, as the internet’s role in the patient path to treatment continues to grow, sponsors need to shift the bulk of their marketing spend towards digital advertising, online engagement, and educational content.

Simply put, social media, search engines, and patient-facing websites are the new common currency for medical marketers; and until the industry is willing to acknowledge and embrace this reality, the struggle to meet enrollment quotas while keeping costs under control will continue.