Nigel Breakwell, WeisComm Partners: Online boost for drug trials

Social media have an important role to play in the recruitment of patients for clinical trials

Three years ago lurid headlines accompanied some equally hair-raising descriptions of the experiences of six men who took part in a drug trial at London's Northwick Park Hospital.

Their physical reactions might have been highly unusual, but there is now, understandably, increased nervousness on the part of people considering taking part in drug trials.

Add in the fact that many trials are competing for groups of patients with particular ailments, plus the massive cost when people drop out of a trial, and the need for a better system of clinical trial recruitment (CTR) is clear.

There are four pillars to success when attracting patients to a drug trial. First, it is essential to build partnerships - both internally and with trial websites and other relevant third parties. Second, create and, third, tell the story or ‘brand' of the study. Finally, measure the impact of the recruitment drive.

In our experience, the best return on investment in CTR comes from a comprehensive communications programme, both national and local. While advertising is often the cornerstone of CTR, the addition of public relations significantly enhances our chances of getting the particular patients we need. PR provides the opportunity to build relationships with recruitment sites, advocates, care-givers and patients. PR can also add credibility by elevating the public discussion about medical need or importance of clinical research.

Some of the more traditional PR approaches we use, such as partnering with websites that recruit the majority of patients or with an advocacy group, serve to increase speed, quantity and quality of patient throughput to centres. This partnering focuses on raising visibility through media that reach the target patient and their care-givers.

For example, in 2007, WeissComm worked with Novacea to recruit patients for a trial of a drug to treat hormone refractory prostate cancer. A comprehensive campaign including consumer, online advertising, patient advocacy outreach, press materials and hands-on local media support for 20 sites was implemented. All activities directed patients and care-givers to the trial website. This resulted in a dramatic increase in visitors to the trial website, from hundreds to 4,000 visits per week. Although trial enrolment was halted at about 950 out of 1,200 patients, Novacea was on track to complete this pivotal trial three months ahead of schedule.

In the past decade, a stronger patient voice has come to the fore with the explosion of social media. Patients now have a voice and online technologies allow patients, care-givers, doctors and the media to connect and support each other. Social media provide the capability of recruiting participants more directly for the study and counter misinformation and ‘urban' myths that might depress participation.

However, there are real concerns about direct engagement by healthcare companies online. And while regulatory agencies are becoming more attuned to these conversations, specific social media regulation is still limited. So how can companies engage social media to recruit and retain people for trials? A CTR online programme is directly targeted at third-party organisations and online influencers and communities.

An effective social media strategy needs a deep understanding of the discussions and thought leaders involved. This requires a comprehensive online audit and real-time monitoring, with realistic metrics to measure the ROI of such a strategy on CTR.

Social media will become a cornerstone to CTR. Any healthcare company engaging patients for trials has to look to online as an important component in its overall comms approach.


Views in brief

What did you learn from the most challenging healthcare comms task in which you have been involved?

As a very ‘green' PR manager, I was involved in work on a developmental drug for HIV/Aids, working closely with advocates and the HIV+ community around compassionate use and open access. It gave me tremendous insight into the power of advocacy, the need to listen and be authentic, transparent, honest and, above all, a real partner - even when you have to share tough news.


Nigel Breakwell is managing director of WeissComm Partners London

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