Modern Patient Recruitment – How Did We Get Here?

by Melynda Geurts

In recent years, a plethora of new patient recruitment tactics have surfaced that take advantage of new technology. Over the last two decades, the industry has gone from relying on personal physician referrals to highly advanced and proactive solutions.

Although problems with patient recruitment continue to be among the top reasons for the failure of clinical trials, these evolving tactics shed light on solutions for low enrollment.

In this blog post I’ll take a look at some of the traditional recruitment methods and how we arrived at the modern patient recruitment landscape.


Initially we relied on referrals from physician or CenterWatch to engage study participants. This method was convenient and touched the patient at the appropriate time. It was also very accurate, as you could select exactly who would receive the message by identifying very specific characteristics. For example, if you were looking for 20- to 30-year-old, pregnant women, these referrals would deliver exactly that.

However, referral approaches have historically delivered a very low volume of patients as physicians could only connect with one patient at a time and it typically required face-to-face interaction. Oftentimes, results were not strong enough to meet enrollment targets and complete the study.

Traditional Media

In order to combat the volume limitations of referral approaches, traditional media erupted as a way to reach a mass audience simultaneously. Media such as television, radio, and newspaper could reach a large amount of people and were relatively cost-effective.

However, in casting such a wide net, these media often reached a lot of unqualified individuals and attracted the wrong people, by no fault of the advertiser. The audience simply may not have seen/heard/read the entire message, potential candidates may not have entirely understood it or may have been misinformed. Following the example of the 20- to 30-year-old, pregnant woman, responses from these advertisements could attract individuals over the age of 30, of the male gender, or that were not pregnant.

Online Communities

Not too long ago, online communities became a popular alternative to the low volume of referrals and inaccuracy of traditional media. These communities began as central hubs where patients gathered online to discuss their illness and seek knowledge or support.

[pullquote]Evolutions in big data allow us to capture more data from these individuals and build complex databases for use in recruitment”[/pullquote]

Technology and the digital age has since sprouted new targeting capabilities that allow us to reach the right patients, at the right time, with a mass approach using these communities. Evolutions in big data allow us to capture more data from these individuals and build complex databases for use in recruitment and throughout the trial.

As the industry came to realize these powerful capabilities, pharmaceutical companies quickly began building their own online communities in hopes of building a large, mineable database for their own clinical trial recruitment projects.

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