Traditional patient recruitment strategies like print, television and radio ads are relatively expensive and much less effective than targeted online advertisement. Eighty percent of Americans who are online are now searching for health information (Allison, 2009), including avenues to participate in clinical trials. Biotech and Pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the rise in social networking to reach out to potential clinical trial participants.
Recruitment for trials on Facebook has proven successful in certain diseases. For example, Clinical Site Services found that Facebook outperformed Google and Yahoo placement ads “five to one” for a sexual desire study targeting young women. Pop-up advertisements can be triggered on Facebook based on keywords in someone’s profile or by being a fan of groups like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (Borfitz, 2010).
While the use of social networking in clinical trial recruitment raises some concerns about privacy issues, it may be years before FDA clarifies its position about trial recruitment via social networking sites. Many companies are forging ahead in this area. A few examples are discussed here.
PatientsLikeMe has condition-specific online communities where patients can share anonymous data about their symptoms, treatment, and outcome with other members or, if they choose, with anyone on the Internet. Select pharma companies can then use this information for possible trial recruitment. PatientsLikeMe has a strict protocol-vetting process to ensure that studies promoted to community members are scientifically sound and clinically significant (Borfitz, 2010). The site has more than 40,000 members who are able to discuss and share the latest information on their disease and learn about new treatments or clinical trials that may be available (Allison, 2009).
Some sites are attempting to bridge the gap between those offering and seeking a clinical trial. Moving beyond ClinicalTrials.gov, these sites are trying to make the process easier and more efficient so that patients don’t have to read through hundreds of trials they aren’t eligible for. One example is Inspire which introduces trial opportunities to disease-specific communities in partnership with advocacy groups. Acurian distributes emails to appropriate individuals in its database while raising trial awareness through an application on Facebook and MySpace (Borfitz, 2010).
TrialX is one of the first companies to connect to a patient’s personal health record (online records that patients set up themselves) to help them match up with trials. Patients can also send a “tweet” to @trialX describing the type of trial they are looking for. TrialX can then “tweet” back a link to a list of potential trials. TrialX now has an agreement with CenterWatch, one of the largest databases of active clinical trials. The company is also planning an iPhone application (Allison, 2009).
These are just a few examples, and social networking sites for patients will surely continue to expand. Protecting the confidentiality of patient data in online forums will be critical to the success of these new approaches to clinical trial recruitment. New privacy policies must be developed to ensure that personal health information will not be leaked over the Internet. However, sponsors as well as CROs should be encouraged to start engaging in online conversations, taking advantage of social networking tools both to de-mystify the clinical trial process and help potential participants make informed decisions. By building relationships with a growing base of followers, sponsors can create a pool of potential subjects for studies in particular therapeutic areas. Partnering with patient recruitment companies can further increase the efficiency of identifying, screening, and enrolling patients. Since fewer than 20% of clinical trials are currently completed on time, largely due to patient recruitment, these new approaches have the potential to streamline the entire clinical trial process.