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Reaching Out to Potential Drug Trial Participants

Posted on August 15th, 2016 by in Pharma R&D


Product testing is a necessary step in almost any industry, but in the pharmaceutical world, testing the safety and efficacy of drugs isn’t just a matter of getting a few people to ‘try it out’ – it’s a massive, tightly-regulated effort requiring extensive drug trials that include hundreds or thousands of participants. Needless to say, simply finding enough people – and, specifically, enough of the RIGHT people – can be extremely challenging.

Barriers to Entry

Because most of the drugs going into clinical trials are designed to help alleviate conditions that a significant number of people are suffering from, one would think that many of those sufferers would be eager to sign up for clinical trials. Yet, as Judy Stone of Forbes notes, a mere 3% of cancer patients, for example, take part in trials.

Stone suggests that much of this is due to lack of awareness, with the biggest barrier in recruitment being a lack of support from attending physicians. “Many physicians simply are unaware of clinical trials that might benefit their patient. Further, with the increasing pressure to see patients more and more quickly, they simply don’t have the time to engage in lengthy discussions with patients,” she writes.

Ways to Recruit

This means that drug companies have to spend large sums of money to create that awareness and to recruit enough suitable participants for their trials. Traditional recruitment methods have included advertisements through television and radio and word-of-mouth through doctors. The Duke University School of Medicine website also notes recruitment methods ranging from advertising with flyers, to consulting a research volunteer registry, to using a special research tool that aggregates clinical data.

Meanwhile, the growth of social media has turned platforms like Facebook and Twitter into helpful recruitment tools, since they make it very easy for companies to get the word spread far and wide about clinical trials. Posting ads on popular websites like Craigslist can also generate interest in studies. Offering payment in exchange for the time that the participant is being asked to spend taking part in the trial is often an important component of successful recruitment as well.

New Methods for Finding Participants

These standard methods have been effective in the past, but many companies are increasingly failing to yield the number of trial participants that they require, leading to costly delays. That’s why some firms are now dreaming up more creative ways to entice people. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reports that Axovant Sciences Ltd. Is working with the ride service Lyft to escort patients to and from appointments at the clinic where they are studying a potential Alzheimer’s drug. This is not just a matter of convenience but of necessity for some participants who are unable to drive themselves or who don’t have ready access to vehicles.

The Wall Street Journal also highlights how Parexel International Corp., which was doing a trial for its own Alzheimer’s drug, went beyond the standard recruitment strategies by analyzing millions of online discussions of the disease and using what they learned to run website ads targeted at the friends and family of those suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Population Selection

Recruitment for clinical studies wouldn’t be so challenging if you could just accept any person into a study, but having the right patient population is critical to ensuring that the trial results are accurate. Depending on the drug and the disease, potential participants might have to meet a very narrow set of criteria that could involve when they were diagnosed, what their prognosis is, and what treatments they have received so far, to name but a few possible factors. As trials progress, it is also important to have a patient population that best reflects the real world into which the drug will eventually be released.

With the expense of conducting clinical drug trials only getting higher – often due to their ultimate failure – getting things right from the start is crucial, and it all begins with recruitment. That’s why companies like Axovant and Parexel are smart to think outside the box when it comes to attracting trial participants. By broadening the pool of willing patients, they are more likely to find the best possible people for the study – saving time and money spent on recruitment, and increasing the trial’s potential for success.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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