New Study Highlights Pros and Cons of Using Social Media for Clinical Trial Recruitment


Though the medium presents a few unique challenges, clinical trials stand to recruit new patients and reduce costs through social media.

It’s no secret that social media gives advertisers new and effective ways to reach their audiences. With more than 2.07 billion monthly active users, Facebook alone provides a wealth of opportunity for clinical trials looking to find and recruit new patients. Yet some trials still hesitate to dive into the waters of social media.

The science is in: social media’s a valuable recruitment tool. A recent study out of the Indiana University School of Medicine explored the efficacy of social media for patient recruitment over a wide geographic area. Though trials must take demographic data and intake accuracy into account, researchers reported that using social media as a recruitment tool largely saved money and time for patients and sites alike.

The Pros: Save Money and Time

The study proved that social media offers several advantages for patients as well as clinical trials. Time and money can both limit patient participation; if a patient has to take time off work and pay for transportation to a trial site, he or she will be less likely to go through with the trial.

Social media minimizes these issues by allowing patients to virtually engage with trials from any part of the country. Within a Facebook group called the Autoimmune Hepatitis Research Network, researchers identified and pre-qualified potential patients more quickly with less time and money invested on the part of the patient. Of the 29 participants who signed up, 28 completed and returned study materials within three months of confirming consent over the phone, while 79% provided medical release forms and medical records after the first request.

The IU study proves that social media has a valuable role to play in rare disease research. With the right parameters, social outreach can transcend geographic limitations, cost issues, and prolonged study courses.

The Cons: Slow Adoption and Extra Due Diligence

Though social media can reduce the overall time and financial investment in clinical trials, the IU study proved that there are still some kinks to work out. This is to be expected, as no patient recruitment method is perfect, but researchers still need to address these challenges for the best results.

The study states that slow technology adoption rates, especially in fast-paced clinical environments, may impede the use of social media as a patient recruitment tool. Ironically, clinical trials have been slow to embrace productivity-boosting tech. But the tide is rapidly changing as recruitment costs skyrocket and patients increasingly search for health information online. We believe that once sponsors and CROs see the value of social media recruitment, quick adoption will follow.

But social media presents other, more complex challenges. First, trials have to ensure that the demographics of recruited patient populations align with the goals of their studies. In the IU example, 90% of the 29 recruited patients were white, all were female, and the median age among them was 52. These demographics happened to fit the requirements of the study, but that won’t always be the case. When using social media to recruit patients with certain rare diseases, trials must make sure that they’re gathering a representative sample of patients.

The other issue that the IU research team encountered was a discrepancy between patient-reported health information and medical records. This issue is equally prevalent with traditional recruitment methods, except when finding patients through medical databases. However, when trials rely on intake forms for pre-qualification, they may run into surprises when presented with official medical information. Trials must take care to incorporate medical fact-checking into the recruitment process when using social media.

None of these challenges are insurmountable, and none of them outweigh the benefits of using social media for recruitment. Clinical trials should run – not walk – to social media as a supplement to traditional patient recruitment efforts.

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