CAMPAIGNS: Healthcare PR - Alzheimer's study supported by PN

Client: Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study (San Diego)

Client: Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study (San Diego)

Client: Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study (San Diego)

PR Team: Porter Novelli (Washington, DC)

Campaign: Memory Impairment Study

Time Frame: March 1999 - November 2000

Budget: dollars 2 million for recruitment

Misplacing a wallet can make some people joke that they have Alzheimer's, but many do have reason to worry about developing the disease. Scientists recently discovered a condition called Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which they believe leads to the development of Alzheimer's in at least 12% to 15% of those it afflicts.

The National Institute on Aging contracted with the University of California at San Diego to conduct a clinical trial to see if Vitamin E or a drug called Aricept can arrest the progression of MCI into Alzheimer's.

Through a grant from Pfizer, UCSD hired Porter Novelli to help recruit and retain 720 people with MCI to participate in the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study, which was administered at 65 centers in the US and Canada.


Each patient needed to make a three-year commitment and have a partner assist with record keeping. Plus, the study projected a 12% to 15% attrition rate as patients develop Alzheimer's. Porter Novelli Washington's Tammy Shea says, 'The major barrier was in recruiting two people for every spot.'

Finding people afflicted with MCI proved easier said than done. Dr. Leon Thal, chairman of neuroscience at UCSD, insists, 'We were inventing the wheel. No one has ever tried to recruit MCI patients before.'

PN's focus groups determined that an 'altruistic' message emphasizing the benefits of the medicine would appeal to prospective participants.

But budget considerations precluded an extensive paid-advertising effort.

Shea says the strategy was to 'cast a wide net and narrow its range throughout the course of the program' through earned media, grassroots and PSAs.


A March 1999 press conference and appearances by Thal and The Mayo Clinic's Dr. Ronald Petersen on the Today show and Good Morning America generated 15,000 calls in the first 48 hours from people interested in taking part in the study. Unfortunately, screening eliminated most of the candidates.

Then in the summer, PN enlisted spokesperson Marion Ross (from Happy Days) for a satellite TV tour, and Petersen appeared on Larry King Live.

The agency also held regular conference calls and conducted individual consultations with study centers on how to best mobilize local media campaigns and community outreach groups. For example, Baylor University received significant help with media outreach. And the agency used its network to ensure study centers would have a presence at senior centers and local health fairs.

'The local, customized help we gave study centers was more lucrative in terms of getting patients,' says Shea. She estimated that nearly two-thirds of the centers received consistent help from PN.


Almost 800 patients were recruited by November 2000 - 164 by placing more than 52,000 phone calls and the rest through local recruiting efforts by the individual study centers.

In addition to television coverage, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal ran stories on the effort.


PN is working on retention strategies to keep patients and their partners active through the duration of the study.

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