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Three Questions: Deborah Miller, patient recruitment expert

Monday, May 1, 2017

CWWeekly presents this feature as a spotlight on issues faced by executives in clinical research. This week, Lisa Chontos spoke with Deborah Miller, who has also authored the book, Winning At Patient Recruitment: Achieving Enrollment Goals Through Outbound Telephone Screening.

Q: What are main issues you see in patient recruitment today, and what is the solution?

A: In the last five years, research sites have strongly believed that social media would save the day for patient recruitment. Every site manager and coordinator hopes and prays that websites and contracted digital marketing firms will have that magic bullet to bring subjects into their studies. Social media has had an impact; however, evidence has shown that these leads sometimes fail to produce interested, eligible subjects.

Sites also rely heavily on third party vendors, some contracted by the sponsor, to generate study interest. Multiple sites simply use the same banners, radio ads, stacks of collateral materials for the counter, etc. However, sometimes these tools don’t yield the results intended.

As researchers, we must remember that research is foreign to most people. Patients do not wake up one morning and say to themselves, “I think I’ll be in a research study.” Getting them to even consider taking part in research takes time, patience, understanding and empathy, but this is where the bonding and relationship can begin.

I’ve been amazed when, in recent years, everyone has jumped on the digital technology bandwagon, thinking apps or websites will solve all the patient recruitment issues. They are important tools, but are best used in conjunction with a solid internal patient recruitment campaign—not in lieu of it. At successful sites, team members reach out to patients within the clinic, a practice I advocate.  That human touch, that direct contact between site and prospect, trumps digital. 

Q: What role does an organization’s management play in improving patient recruitment?

A: Management plays a critical role in ensuring patient recruitment success. If managers buy in to using an internal patient recruitment model, they should start by understanding that this is not an entry-level position. That person should be tenacious about reaching the prospect and be able to work independently. A good recruiter also knows their way around the research study and can confidently answer questions concerning participation.

Coordinators who are assigned to recruit for a study must be freed up from other clinic tasks during the recruitment campaign.

Management and the patient recruiter should track daily and weekly outbound dials. For the recruiter, tracking is critical to meeting targets; for management, tracking is essential to understanding how to staff future recruitment efforts based on enrollment targets. 

Finally, managers should support, acknowledge and compensate recruiters when they have reached their enrollment targets, perhaps with bonuses. The internal patient recruitment model involves a lot of outbound dialing. It can be a grind but is also rewarding, especially when that clinic calendar is populating with screening appointments.       

Q: What are the keys to success for internal telephone screening and recruitment?

A: An internal patient recruitment model involves introducing a study to the clinic’s existing patient population. I learned years ago that by applying business management and marketing principals to patient recruitment, enrollment targets can be reached. It requires a systematic approach that begins with mailing a physician referral letter introducing the study to patients who meet two or three general inclusion criteria, and then following up with a telephone call.  

This approach requires a dogged commitment to making those outbound calls—it could be 50, or it could be 500. One or two team members could be assigned the recruitment task for that study, or the site might have a dedicated patient recruiter. That person commits to reaching out to those patients not just once, but perhaps three or four times. This is one of the keys to this approach. We keep calling until we reach them and we definitely don’t give up after a single call. The hallmark of this approach involves elements of branding, communication and relationship-building.

One other key element is that whoever is assigned the recruitment task is freed up from other clinic duties during the recruitment. They could be calling upward of 25 to 35 patients per day and cannot be expected to handle other clinic tasks. During this time, their only job is recruitment and it should be done in a quiet, private office away from the hectic pace of the clinic.

This approach works because the research team is truly “in touch” with the prospects.  First, they are in touch through a physician referral letter, then with a telephone screen and scheduling a clinic screen, by mailing a thank you letter with their clinic appointment date and, finally, by calling them with an appointment reminder. Even before the patient has set foot in the clinic for their first screening, they have had contact with the research team four separate times. It is rapport-building at its best. With each of these steps, research teams are solidifying that relationship with prospects, thus laying a foundation for that prospect to be open to considering participation.  Follow the mantra, “Be in touch.”


This article was reprinted from Volume 21, Issue 17, of CWWeekly, a leading clinical research industry newsletter providing expanded analysis on breaking news, study leads, trial results and more. Subscribe »

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