Social media: A tool for clinical trial recruitment?

Andrew Tolve reports on how pharma firms are using social media to recruit patients for clinical trialsand speed time to market

Finding qualified patients for clinical trials costs pharma companies millions of dollars and often sets them months, even years, behind schedule.

Of the 50,000 clinical trials that took place in the US in 2009, 80 percent were delayed by at least a month due to low enrollment.

Social media can help.

Through online forums like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, clinical recruitment trials can find large, enthusiastic, and qualified groups of patients online.

Social media affords an opportunity for patients to discuss with each other why they should participate, why this is interesting, why this is important, says David Williams, chief marketing officer of PatientsLikeMe.

Its using peer influence to generate interest in participating in a trial.

PatientsLikeMe hosts an array of disease communities where patients can track their medications, symptoms, and health outcomes and can learn from other patients whose profiles resemble their own.

PatientsLikeMe allows industry to look at aggregated data from its communities to help speed medical advances.

To that end, the company has started partnering with pharma companies to spread word of clinical recruitment trials through its online communities.

Other patient sites like Inspire and have done likewise.

What you see in this whole space is that you cant bring a product to market fast if you dont recruit well for your trials, says Williams.

And in this day and age, using social media should be a no-brainer to help.

Starting a conversation

In the US, most clinical recruitment trials are conducted by local centers distributed around the country.

Each center is responsible for recruiting a certain number of patients, and its recruitment methods generally entail a mix of ads on radio and TV.

Some centers hire outside specialists to send out email blasts or to launch search engine marketing campaigns.

Finally, screeners at the center, charged with picking out qualified patients, wait for the round of recruits to pour inand wait and wait.

The problem is threefold, says Williams.

First, launching prolonged recruitment campaigns is expensive and many centers arent afforded the proper budget.

Second, trying to reach people through TV and radio is a bad bet these days.

People switch radio stations to avoid ads and scan over commercials on TiVo, whereas theyll spend hours interacting online.

Third, most online recruitment methods dont tap into the real marketing value of Web 2.0.

E-mail blasts are easy to delete and search engine ads are easy to ignore.

While these campaigns can be and mostly are more successful from an efficiency standpoint than traditional TV and radio, Williams says, they lack what social media provides, which is a conversation.

Patients as partners

PatientsLikeMes solution is called Clinical Trial Awareness.

Pharma companies are allowed to send out a co-branded email that informs a disease community (and qualified patients therein) that they may be eligible for a clinical trial.

PatientsLikeMe encourages companies to approach the patients as partners rather than subjectspartners who need to hear the benefits of enrolling.

Patients, then, receive that e-mail and can directly sign up if they like.

More often than not, however, they take the clinical trial to the forum to discuss with each other what its about, if the benefits are justified, and why it may or may not be worthwhile.

Williams calls this a community screener and says it leads to peer-based support for a trial that emails blasts or search engine marketing campaigns never create.

These people could be scared to participate but theyre interested, Williams says.

The way to get over fear a lot of times is to share it with others. Get some people who may have participated in a trial or who may have talked to their doctor about what its like to participate and who can better and more efficiently reassure others.

Results show this process works.

Clinical Trial Awareness launched in 2008 and since has partnered with more than a dozen pharma companies, expediting clinical trial recruitment by an average of six to eight weeks.

Novartis told BusinessWeek in 2008 that PatientsLikeMe had accelerated its multiple sclerosis trial by a few months.

We were in a real crunch in terms of finding eligible patients, Trevor Mundel, head of development for Novartis, told BusinessWeek at the time.

We saw an immediate uptick in interest once we partnered with them.

Inspire has proven equally effective and has landed numerous big pharma companies, including Merck.

Risks of social media

Some in the health community warn that social media poses risks for clinical trials.

Patients should have access to the full spectrum of clinical trials and treatment options, some argue, rather than a single, endorsed option.

Others worry that social media forums could lead to biased results, as patients discuss each others treatment and thus impact adverse-event reporting.

Mundel of Novartis told BusinessWeek that patient persuasion remains terra incognita: Its something which hasnt been worked through, how [social networks] might worsen the accuracy of adverse-event reporting. Thats one concern we have to think about and still dont totally understand.

Nonetheless, as new social media forums devoted to health continue to crop up month after monthsites like facetofacehealth.comso too will the trend for using them for recruitment.

Williams confesses that PatientsLikeMe fell into clinical trial awareness due to high demand and only pursued it because it aligns with the core principal of advancing medical solutions for patients.

Part of our corporate business mission is to bring better products to market faster, better treatments for our patients, and thats why its a win-win partnership for us to do clinical trial awareness programs, Williams says.

This isnt just about PatientsLikeMe. Companies are moving into Facebook, into Twitter, and other types of corporate-level blogging to try to generate interest, increase awareness, and so forth.

Tapping into that vein of wide scale, yet personalized communication may be the way forward.