Social Media for Clinical Trial Recruitment

We know we we should be doing it, right?

Instead of spending most of your budget on print or physical ads, we could be doing strategic, hyper-targeted, hyper-relevant recruiting across our digital channels.

We can use different tools available across social channels to reach specific populations needed for recruitment. This can be done by using Facebook ads, keyword searches by zip code, or upload our community outreach e-mail distribution list to re-target the people we need. Then, we can test things like Instagram ads to gauge engagement interest over on-site conversion.

But you knew all of that. So, what's stopping us?


For many scientists and health care administrators, the term "social media" brings with it horror stories of lawsuits, HIPAA violations and information privacy breaches. The clinical trial space is especially susceptible to this.

-What if you face ramifications from posting an ad and people start asking medical advice?     
-What if fans or followers start over-sharing details of their disease that puts their privacy at risk?
-What do you do if someone interprets the use of your recruitment language and expect to be “cured?”

These are real, legitimate concerns. And you'll need to talk through them at-length with your own IRB council, research and digital leadership. We must be prepared to mitigate risk and de-escalate sensitive recruitment issues in real-time, just as we do in the rest our social media work now. 

2. Platform Limitations

If we could ask the social media gods one thing, it would be this: Stop making it so dang hard for us to help the people who really need it.

In the past, Facebook has rejected some of our team's ads, if they've use the word "suffer" or show a physiological image, calling it "pornographic." What?

Twitter stops our clinical trial promoted tweets in their tracks, regulating and blocking them by their "pharma policy.”

The platforms, themselves, are a barrier to our progress.

But we have faith, naive as it may be, that with each new feature or algorithm update, Mark Zuckerberg will come to understand the bigger risks of not accommodating this important work.

3. Process and Resourcing

We need the IRB's OK for any promotional copy going out around our research, which includes Facebook ads and tweets. And you've got a whole lot of researchers, who need to be doing world-changing science.

Do you expect those scientists to also know how to write 90 characters of engaging social copy, with a compelling call-to-action and relevant hashtag - before they put their project through for IRB approval?

Absolutely not. That's your social team's job. But they have customer service, crisis and community management, and robust content development to take care of. So, where does that leave us?

(Hint: You'll probably want to consider developing some kind of "social media toolkit" for your research teams. University of Arizona has a nice one.)


We're mired in the muck of poor process

We've talked "breaking down internal fiefdoms" before, but this really is the largest impediment to our making the most of digital clinical trial recruitment.

We're going to have to move people around, add more to the plates of folks who are already quite busy (i.e. your social squad, your research administration, your legal team), before we get a streamlined process in place.

It's going to be a hard-sell internally. It's going to be more work before it becomes less. It's going to require hiring more people.

But we promise you, in the long run, it will save your institution big dollars.

Most importantly, it will change the future of healthcare.

Find important FDA guidelines for recruitment here and here.

*This post originally published on LinkedIn.