Social media, by definition, is an “interaction”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Pulse on Patient Recruitment by Ashley Tointon

Social media is an online technology that enables people to share content, opinions, insights and experiences.

Usage is exploding globally and, according to statistics from, nearly 2.1 billion people have social media accounts, 3.65 billion mobile users have access to the Internet via smartphones and tablets, and almost 1.7 billion people have active social media accounts.

Online advertisers are taking note and are exploring new developments in networks and messaging. Trends are being analyzed and many industries, including clinical trial patient recruitment, are changing how they reach their audience. What methods are being used and what is acceptable use of social media for patient recruitment?


Many companies are already successfully utilizing social media to recruit patients into clinical trials and many more plan on doing so. According to a June 2014 Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development white paper titled “Industry Usage of Social and Digital Media,” although only 11% of clinical trials were utilizing social media for patient recruitment, the number of companies projected to use social media is growing exponentially. Social media, by definition, is an “interaction.”

Even though nine of 14 companies surveyed in the Tufts white paper have placed advertising on social media sites, only a third have used social media in its true form as a two-way communication. What that means is that it is much more common for companies to place online advertising on a platform such as Facebook as opposed to hosting an actual Facebook page where two-way interactions can occur. The most common platforms for patient recruitment are Facebook, patient communities, YouTube, Twitter, mobile apps and blogs.

Not all clinical trials will be suited for social media outreach. When the desire to be innovative outweighs the need to successfully recruit patients, one should stop and reflect. For example, a clinical trial that has a concentrated online presence coupled with a high prevalence rate may be a great place to launch a social media campaign; on the other hand, if your target audience is limited and does not have an online presence, perhaps another outreach tactic would be better suited to deliver. With true social media, trust is earned and not merely bought with advertising money. Content should be rich, pertinent and regularly updated.

Although the highly regulated clinical trial space naturally spans a higher level of conservatism, there are some very acceptable and safe ways to utilize social media for clinical trial recruitment, leaving few excuses not to push through the fear and red tape and adopt social media practices for patient recruitment. The reasons pharmaceutical sponsors long have cited regarding their reluctance to adopt social media typically fall into two categories: concerns about adverse event reporting and concerns about patient privacy. Companies recruiting for clinical trials are more comfortable leveraging a platform for advertising than actually launching two-way communications, which involves social media and not merely online advertising.

Although these concerns are understandable with the scrutiny that is given to public-facing patient recruitment advertisements, they should not be a game stopper. The main benefits of utilizing true two-way social media tactics to engage patients are spreading awareness of a particular clinical trial, building trust among patients and creating awareness of clinical research trials. 


Ashley Tointon has more than 18 years of patient recruitment and project management experience supporting clinical trials and the pharmaceutical industry. Currently she provides recruitment expertise, strategy and leadership as Principal Consultant of Accelerate Clinical Enrollment. Email comments and suggestions to

This article was reprinted from CWWeekly, a leading clinical research industry newsletter providing expanded analysis on breaking news, study leads, trial results and more. Subscribe »

Looking for more news, check out the new FREE CenterWatch Weekly!

The new FREE CenterWatch Weekly is your source of critical news, emerging trends, and business issues around everything in the rapidly changing clinical research marketplace. Check out our new CWWeekly page! Sign up today for your free email newsletter, update your bookmarks and check us out regularly! We look forward to bringing you the best news and information about clinical research in 2018!