After our webcast, “Best Practices for Boosting Enrollment in Oncology Trials,” this past spring, there was much interest in the topic of using social media and technology in patient recruitment, which led me to write about their role in patient recruitment for oncology clinical trials.

With the majority of Americans having Internet access and becoming computer literate, it’s understandable that patient recruitment for all clinical trials is moving online. The use of web-based tools provides more cost-effective and efficient ways to access a wider pool of potential participants and to screen them before the first research visit. In fact, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet and 72 percent of those users say they have looked online for health information within the past year.

At its core, the success of a clinical trial is contingent on its ability to recruit patients. According to a pharmaceutical industry analysis conducted by research firm Cutting Edge Information, an estimated 80% of trials fail to meet enrollment timelines, with as many as 50% of research trial sites enrolling one or no patients. Targeting and retaining the participation of the right patients poses a serious challenge for researchers.

Luckily, social media can educate potential patients on the value of clinical research and encourage them to participate in studies. And in many cases, information sent through social media also reaches the family or advocates of potential patients, which can often have a better outcome than solely reaching out to the patient, especially those that are elderly or infirm due to their illness. However, the key to successfully leveraging your social media networks is identifying the studies’ core variables. Doing so decreases the chance of running into problems, such as frustration or wasted recruitment budgets, because like any tool, social media is only as useful as the appropriateness of its application.

Another important aspect of using social media to recruit patients is the quality of communication. To engage potential patients and their families or advocates, information about clinical trials must be translated in a way that is easy for the average, non-medical person to understand. This includes removing medical jargon (for example, instead of using the term hypertension, just use high blood pressure), breaking down complex concepts and putting a human face to the study.

One of the most successful uses of social media platforms to recruit study patients appears to be online forums. These communities allow potential patients and their loved ones to access information and connect with others in similar situations. It also keeps the conversation going with potential patients by creating a place where people who applied but didn’t qualify for a trial aren’t left feeling abandoned and may remain open for a different trial. In turn, this continues to build upon a targeted pool of potential participants that may be needed in the future.

Another benefit to online forums is that study sponsors streamline the often costly and time-consuming process of finding and screening potential trial participants. These forums can contain a series of prescreening questionnaires and informational videos, and also offers multiple methods for prospective study participants to interact with study coordinators.

Other social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter also show the same promise of benefits. Though they provide an ideal environment for increasing awareness of clinical trials, to what extent they are successful in recruiting patients is yet to be determined.

Though social media will likely never be the sole source of patient recruitment for clinical trials, especially in oncology and critical care indications, several social networking sites have the potential to bridge a large part of the gap between those offering and seeking a clinical trial. And with changes constantly underway to improve patient enrollment, there’s no doubt that the use of social medial will continue to increase.