It is well known that patient recruitment is the largest factor in increasing clinical trial costs, accounting for almost one third of trial budgets. 1 Patient recruitment also provides the greatest logistical challenge for trials: of the approximately 50,000 clinical trials underway in the U.S., 80% are delayed by at least one month because of enrollment. 2 As pharma companies look for new avenues to attract patients to their trials, the traditional methods of chart review, print and radio advertisements are being supplanted with online and social media outlets – but do they work?

A recent pilot study conducted at the Mayo Clinic would suggest that for particular patient populations, a social media-based strategy for patient recruitment can provide success.3 Patients are increasingly looking to the internet to provide health information, before seeking advice from a doctor.4 Clinical trialists need to find the right motivator to turn each curious online patient into a study participant.

The key to a social media strategy appears to be capitalizing on the wealth of online support groups and their members. The Mayo Clinic study targeted the online community of The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease,, and recruited the required patients in only one week. Similarly, the online communities of have enabled sponsors to recruit eligible patients in a fraction of budgeted timelines.5 Providing further credibility to the role of online support groups are the partnerships that have been formed with disease advocacy groups and national registries like, whose system has integrated with to allow users to search for suitable studies in their area.

While sites like Inspire and Patientslikeme have hundreds of thousands of members identified in over a thousand disease areas, the greatest successes in social media have been realized in small trials in very specific patient groups. Triumph within the social media field also requires a sponsor willing to lead in an industry shy of innovation due to the numerous regulations that govern it. Traditional, digital and social media strategies all have a place in contributing to successful recruitment for clinical trials. However, as patients turn online for health advice with greater and greater frequency, the power of social media cannot be ignored.

Sarah Beales

  4. Google & OTX, Health Consumer Study, December 2009