How Clinical Trials Can Leverage Digital Advertising to Recruit Rare Disease Patients More Effectively


With clinical trial costs on the rise and participant recruitment and retention at an all-time low, it’s time for trial recruiters to embrace new solutions.

It’s no secret that the clinical trial industry is struggling to keep operational costs under control. Between 2008 and 2013, clinical trial costs went up by a full 60%, and Tufts research indicates that the average cost of a new prescription drug approval is now more than $2.6 million. It’s worth pointing out that much of this struggle can be attributed to the enrollment process – in fact, 27% of clinical trial costs can be attributed to recruitment inefficiencies, which isn’t very surprising when you consider that today, 37% of investigator sites fail to meet enrollment targets and 10% are unable to successfully enroll a single patient.

Clinical trials for rare diseases are particularly vulnerable to low enrollment – not only are these patients relatively few in number and geographically scattered, but according to Global Genes, approximately 50% of people affected by rare diseases are children. As a result, these patients are much less likely to travel to trial locations or be registered in existing trial databases. And unsurprisingly, nearly 30% of Phase 3 rare disease trials fail to secure approval due to enrollment problems.

Clearly, the industry needs to embrace new tools and strategies if it hopes to improve the efficiency of rare disease patient recruitment. In light of the evolving patient path to treatment, search engine marketing (SEM) has emerged as the most efficient and effective means of accomplishing this goal. With the proper approach, campaign managers can reach highly targeted patient segments, thereby driving more qualified patient leads to investigator sites while simultaneously reducing operational overhead and minimizing the waste of resources.

SEM and Clinical Trial Recruitment

Today, more than 77% of online healthcare research takes place on search engines, and the vast majority of that research is conducted on Google. In fact, Google processes about 89% of all search engine-based health queries, which amounts to more than 28 billion searches per year in the United States alone. It should therefore come as no surprise that Google AdWords has emerged as a strategic cornerstone of any successful clinical trial recruitment campaign – just look at the numbers.

However, it’s not just the massive audience volume that makes SEM such a valuable asset. When it comes to digital marketing, simply focusing on hitting the largest possible number of prospective patients won’t ultimately produce optimal results – in reality, this approach fails to capitalize on many of the key functional advantages of digital recruitment.

How to Target Active Patients Online

An “active” patient is a patient who is not only actively searching for new treatment options, but is also taking control of the entire process and making decisions for themselves. In contrast, a “passive” patient may still be in the research or educational phase, or may opt to leave the decision-making to their physician, surgeon, etc.

With the proper approach to keyword and demographic targeting, it’s possible to reach these active patients the moment they become transactional, thereby delivering a significantly higher volume of qualified candidates to trial sites from a smaller pool of initial prospects, all at a much higher rate of efficiency.

Moverover, with SEM (and some other media types), clinical trial recruiters can now target these active patients exclusively, opting to pay only when a patient actually clicks on the ad. This is known as cost per click (CPC) buying. Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Facebook all use CPC-based bidding and buying models. This method offer several advantages to recruiters:

  • With CPC, you effectively eliminate the financial risk associated with having different click through rates (CTRs) for different ads.
  • By adjusting your CPC bids, you can counteract underperforming audiences with low conversion rates (CRs) to achieve similar cost outcomes.

By using demonstrated patient intent as a strategic advantage (i.e., using patient search queries as a pre-qualification tactic), as well as CPC-based bidding, rare disease trials can recruit more efficiently and effectively. In addition to speeding up the approval process and getting new orphan drugs to the people who need them most, increased trial efficiency serves to reduce the overall cost of care for patients with rare diseases and chronic conditions.

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