The ability to recruit an adequate number of participants can be an important factor in a study’s success, helping to ensure that the work can be completed within planned budgets and timelines, and with sufficient statistical power. While every study will encounter unique opportunities and challenges, experienced researchers suggest that taking time early on to plan a communication strategy that includes clear messaging, multi-pronged communication channels, and targeted materials can save time later on.
Video: Recruitment Communications Strategy
Floris Singletary, Brooks Rehabilitation Clinical Research Center
Sometimes the researchers are just naive or unrealistic that everybody is just going to want to join their project. You know, “Sign up! It’s really great!”
I think they’re naive about the effort it takes to recruit for clinical trials. If I do a 250 person mail-out of people, and I get 20 calls, that’s good. 20 calls back from just a mail out. Mail outs are easy though, they’re easy to do.
The misconception is that people just don’t realize how hard it’s going to be to get a large N.
If you’re a university or institution and you’re working with clinical partners, which is what my scenario has been, you have to think about what you are going to do to communicate your ideas within a clinical setting.
One of the things that was very, very important for us was to use social media. We have a great world now that we live in. How can we use our social media to help us build the recruitment for these trials? It’s also really important that you have credible, nice-looking recruitment materials. It’s important that you make it as easy as possible for the clinicians, the doctors, to understand what you’re doing, and then for the patient to understand in kind of a non-threatening way.
The take home message is, you have to have good materials.
The poster presentation with samples and further details is available under the “Supplemental” tab on this page.
- Singletary, F. F. & Smith, M. P. (2014, November). Using a Research Registry to Recruit for Clinical Trials. Poster presented at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention in Orlando, FL.
Points to Consider
Excerpted from Points to Consider about Recruitment and Retention While Preparing a Clinical Research Study, National Institute of Mental Health.
- Have you designed your informational/study materials for your intended audience?
- Have you considered working with community organizations that could help prepare, design, or distribute informational/study materials?
- Will study materials (consent forms, study instruments) account for different levels of literacy and cognitive abilities?
Suggestions: Use clear and simple language in informational materials. Provide all materials in the first language of target populations.
- What mechanisms will you use to encourage recruitment?
- Will you need different recruitment strategies tailored to different racial/ethnic populations?
- Do you have a Public Affairs or Media Relations Department at your university that can help you to promote the study to your local media and community?
- Does your Public Affairs or Media Relations Department have connections to all of the communities chosen for the study?
- Do you have a detailed and piloted plan for community outreach for each group chosen?
- How long does it take your IRB to review and approve advertising?
- Will you have a dedicated telephone number and/or email address for potential participants to learn more about the study and a response system in place?
- Have you determined if there are conditions in the local community that might affect participant support of your project (e.g. the effects of numerous studies and oversampling, or community activists seeking to influence research projects)?
Suggestions: Consider multiple recruitment tools such as radio ads, newspaper ads, flyers, newsletter articles, FAQ sheets, web sites, public service announcements, press releases, letters to the editor, Op-Ed articles, interviews on TV or radio, etc. Match the recruitment tool to the target audience (potential participant vs. caregiver vs. community referral source) and conduct pilot tests. Make sure all staff who communicate with potential participants receive proper training.
When the Study Has Been Completed
- How will you thank participants?
- How will you disseminate the research results to all communities involved?
- How will you maintain the relationships that you have forged with the communities?
Suggestions: Send thank you notes to participants and other communities that were involved in the study. Report research results in formats most useful to the different communities involved, such as participants, families of participants, and referring practitioners. For participants, explain how the findings may ultimately improve their health. To accommodate the busy schedules of health care practitioners, provide a handout that summarizes the findings more succinctly than a journal publication. Maintain contact with your established community-based research advisory board and other community representatives/liaisons. Establishing and maintaining positive relationships with your community may facilitate your future research studies, as well as the studies of your colleagues.
See National Institute of Mental Health (2005) for additional considerations and suggestions.
Suggestions for Branding, Messaging, and Materials
Digested from Clinical Trials Recruitment Best Practices Manual, Michael J. Fox Foundation Clinical Trial Strategies Team.
Developing a Study Brand
Make sure all materials for a trial have a consistent look and feel. You don’t have to be fancy, but at a minimum, pick a color and a typeface to use across the entire suite of materials.
Developing Key Messages
Think about how you want to communicate the big picture to potential subject, a peer medical practitioner, and the media. Think about why the study matters, why someone should want to participate, and what concerns prospective participants might have.
- Create a suite of materials, including elements such as patient recruitment materials, study talking points, materials for referring clinicians, press releases or fact sheets, newsletter articles, and/or presentations.
- Find a “hook” to quickly articulate why someone should identify themselves or read the materials further.
- Provide the right level of detail for the audience — make sure practitioner materials can be quickly scanned without getting bogged down in too much detail. Make sure participant materials explain technical or scientific language in friendly terms.
- Work with your organization to incorporate a high-resolution logo and official colors in your materials to draw in participants who will recognize and have positive feelings for your university or institution’s brand.
See Michael J. Fox Foundation (2011) for more details and additional ideas.
Further Reading: Online Resources of Interest
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). (2012). Participant Recruitment for Research. AHRQ-Funded Projects: Emerging Lessons (Available from the AHRQ Website at www.ahrq.gov).
Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF). (2014). Clinical Trials Recruitment Best Practices Manual [PDF]. For Researchers: Trial Resources (Available from the MJFF Website at www.michaeljfox.org).
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2005). Points to Consider about Recruitment and Retention While Preparing a Clinical Research Study [PDF]. NIMH Policy for the Recruitment of Participants in Clinical Research (Available from the NIMH Website at www.nimh.nih.gov).
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2014). Recruiting Study Subjects Information Sheet: Guidance for Institutional Review Boards and Clinical Investigators. Regulatory Information: FDA Guidance Documents (Available from the FDA Website at www.fda.gov).
Further Reading: Strategies to Improve Participant Recruitment
Blanton, S., Morris, D. M., Prettyman, M. G., Mcculloch, K., Redmond, S., Light, K. E. & Wolf, S. L. (2006). Lessons learned in participant recruitment and retention: The EXCITE trial. Physical Therapy, 86(11), 1520–1533 [Article] [PubMed]
Lovato, L. C., Hill, K., Hertert, S., Hunninghake, D. B. & Probstfield, J. L.. (1997). Recruitment for controlled clinical trials: Literature summary and annotated bibliography. Controlled Clinical Trials, 18(4), 328–352 [Article] [PubMed]
Treweek, S., Mitchell, E., Pitkethly, M., Cook, J., Kjeldstrøm, M., Johansen, M., Taskila, T.K., Sullivan, F., Wilson, S., Jackson, C., Jones, R., & Lockhart, P. (2010). Strategies to improve recruitment to randomised controlled trials. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4. 10.1002/14651858.MR000013.pub5
Watson, J. & Torgerson, D. (2006). Increasing recruitment to randomised trials: a review of randomised controlled trials. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 6(1), 34. 10.1186/1471-2288-6-34 [Article] [PubMed]