Recruiting patients via Twitter

A study by JAMA oncology found that when English-speaking people tweet about lung cancer, they discuss clinical trials about 18% of the time. Twitter is transforming the way we communicate, but can we use this social media platform to increase awareness and enrollment in clinical trials?

Author Mina S. Sedrak, MD, of the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia explained, "Social media may be this new infrastructure for cancer centers, researchers, and physicians to interact with the public in new and productive ways, including stimulating interest in clinical trials with targeted messages that connect patients, caregivers, and families to specific trials and trial enrollment websites.”

Why social media?

Clinical trials are crucial to developing treatments for cancer, and not having volunteers can severely slow down therapy advances. Unfortunately, only 5% of adult cancer patients participate in therapeutic clinical trials - a statistic that urgently needs altering.

Currently there are an estimated 2.34 billion people on social media, but how do we know people are interested in using these platforms to discuss healthcare and clinical trials?

In JAMA’s study, researchers used the Twitter search engine to identify tweets containing the term "lung cancer" over a 2-week period in January 2015 where they identified 15,346 unique tweets. These results show social media users are interested in the subject, whether they’re raising awareness, talking about their own personal experiences or discussing clinical research.

What can we learn from these findings?

Dr Sedrak has proposed using "big data science" in further studies to analyse more of twitter in order to identify influential tweeters, how people are talking about clinical trials, and how researchers and physicians can be part of the conversation.

Recruitment at present relies heavily on physician recommendations, and in an undisputably digital age, this kind of research gives the potential for these traditional methods to be updated.

From these new findings, we can see that Twitter offers a rich and communal hotbed of discussion, which has already been used to raise awareness of conditions, or to seek advice about managing them. By tapping into these communities, clinical researchers can not only have their messages seen by the right audiences, but ensure that those messages are being actively engaged with.

How to recruit via Twitter

“We need to learn more about the ecology of social media, because it is clearly not consistently directing patients to the right places,” Sedrak said of the stud, raising the point that tapping into Twitter’s potential for clinical trial recruitment needs to be carefully, and targetedly.

Before you consider putting messages out on Twitter regarding clinical trials, it’s important to do your research. Discover what sort of conversations people are having regarding their condition and trial opportunities. Pay particular attention to the hashtags used, as these can help you target a relevant community.

Not only is Twitter a powerful platform for speaking to patients - it’s also a remarkable place to listen. Find out any concerns that are being voiced about clinical trials, and tailor your messages - and indeed your trial design - to take these into account.

Challenges to social media recruitment

A key statistic for clinical research companies to consider is that over 70% of internet users are not native English speakers, meaning that in order to create the correct kinds of recruitment campaigns, it is vital to gain an understanding of the local culture and provide information in local languages.

However, recruitment materials can’t just be translated word for word. Medical terms may not always be the same in different cultures, and potential patients are likely to overlook your messaging if there isn’t a correct use of readily recognisable terminology.

An example is the medical term ‘psoriasis’, which is used by the medical community, but the common term used by the general population in Germany is ‘shuppenflecht’. As such, recruitment materials that rely too heavily on the term ‘psoriasis’ without mention of ‘shuppenflecht’ may miss a wide audience of people with the condition who simply do not know or think to search for it under any other term.

In addition, different countries may have different legal regulations for clinical trials, meaning a straight translation could overlook critical compliance.

To learn more about patient recruitment across multiple channels, and how to stay compliant no matter where in the world your research is taking place, get in touch today.