Trial finder matchmaking: could mobile apps boost patient engagement?

One of the biggest barriers to clinical trial recruitment and patient engagement is lack of awareness. Enter mobile technology, with a series of new apps designed to address this discrepancy.

The USA’s National Brain Tumour Society (NBTS) it is the latest organisation to join this trend with the launch of its Clinical Trial Finder app. Easy to use and accessible, the service instantly links its users with suitable trials.

We explore the uptake of mobile trial finder technology in the pharmaceutical industry, how it can increase participation, and what else needs to be done to truly improve clinical trial recruitment, retention and engagement.

The problem: Cutting edge science, stone age communication

Huge numbers of people are needed to conduct a robust clinical trial, yet recruitment methods tend to be haphazard. Low awareness means low enrollment rates, and this ultimately slows clinical trial progression and wastes money.

Recruitment methods often include notices on clinic walls, small ads in hospital newsletters and good old-fashioned word of mouth. Once recruited, researchers then need to keep their trial subjects engaged in the study if they want to reduce costly drop-out rates.

App usage in all sectors is on the rise, but use in healthcare has exploded in recent years. In clinical trials, mHealth is being used in particular to improve clinical trial recruitment strategies and boost patient engagement.

mHealth solution: building clinical trial awareness

Around the world, between 40% and 70% of trials face delays because of a lack of volunteers. Research in the UK found 85% of people at diagnosis were unaware or unsure that participation in a clinical trial was an option. Of these, 75% said they would have been been willing to enroll if they had known it was an option.

Trial finder apps are now a tried and tested means of building awareness. More than 60,000 people have signed up to the Michael J Fox Foundation’s Fox Trial Finder. As well as listing available Parkinson’s Disease research studies, it matches users to the trials that they are best suited to. It also boasts a secure and anonymous messaging system for seamless recruitment.

The NBTS said one of the main reasons so few patients participate in a clinical trial is because they are not aware of the choices. What’s more, traditional internet clinical trial finders tend to be difficult to navigate. The organisation’s new app was designed specifically for brain tumour patients by Michael Wenger, a volunteer web developer and brain tumour survivor. He said:

“I believe that greater awareness of available clinical trials can empower individual patients, as well as the entire brain tumour community, to get more involved in medical research and their own treatment planning.

“Ultimately, I hope that this will lead to more treatment options in the future and that the NBTS Clinical Trial Finder encourages patients like me to consider, and engage with, clinical research from the time of diagnosis and beyond.”

mHealth solution: improving clinical trial engagement

According to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, half of patients on a randomised clinical trial become lost to follow up. When the average cost to sponsors is an estimated $35,500 per patient, the importance of keeping participants engaged is clear.

Study participants need to be treated like people, not statistics or data point. The key to keeping them engaged is communication. From reminding people of follow up meetings to sharing objectives or motivational messages, there is an app for that.

Wing bills itself as a complete patient engagement solution. It’s an app that matches participants to trials, helps them enrol and then enables the team to communicate with them throughout the study.

There’s more than a burgeoning belief in the platform’s ability to perform. Its manufacturer VitalTrax has become the first company to receive $150,000 in seed financing from the Independence Health Group’s $6m digital health funding initiative.

Will mobile health resolve everything?

Mobile applications are not the first wave of technology to address the problem of low study participation rates. The NHS National Institute for Health Research launched the Clinical Trials Gateway which matches potential subjects to researchers via its database in 2012.

A survey carried out in 2013 found that while the site was useful and easy to navigate, 80% of the 645 respondents had never heard it. The majority of them, 83%, were patients or carers, showing that while technological solutions can make a difference, their usefulness can be limited.

The path to true engagement, then, has to be a utilisation of, rather than a reliance on, technology. By encouraging healthcare providers and patient support organisations to promote mHealth via more traditional means, we can hope to to see a bigger - and more engaged - patient population.

If you liked this you might also want to check out our article on reducing clinical trial patient drop out rates.