The role of social media in clinical trial recruitment

Sean Johnson

The biggest barrier for pharmaceutical companies to overcome in conducting a clinical trial is actually recruiting patients to participate. This recruiting conundrum has always been an issue within the pharmaceutical community but it has been exacerbated in recent years and many trials are delayed or put on hold completely due to lack of participants.

But social media could play a big role in reversing this trend. According to the Pew Research Center, 57% of American adults surf the Web for health-related information. The Pew Research Center also reports 52% of Americans aged 18 to 64, and 75% of those aged 18-29, are on at least one social networking site.

According to Scott Connor, VP of Marketing for Acurian, a clinical trial patient recruitment and retention provider, with Americans increasingly using the Web for both medical and networking purposes pharmaceutical companies now have a fresh pool to tap to fulfill trial quotas. Sites like Facebook and MySpace not only help companies spread the word about a specific trial, but they can also help lower the cost per patient while targeting specific demographic populations.

“The Facebook ad network can display a clinical trial message to those Facebook users that you only want to target, say, women aged 40-54 for your female incontinent study and then you can narrow it further to only those women who live within 25 miles of your active clinical trial sites,” Connor said.


“…57% of American adults surf the Web for health-related information.”

“The ability to place ads within a certain city limit or ZIP code is a huge benefit over traditional advertising channels too,” said Connor, “because it allows companies to target those most likely to take part.”

“This geographic targeting is super critical when it comes to trial messaging and that’s because we all know that travel distance to the research site is still, by far, the number one reason why a patient will or will not choose to participate,” said Connor.

For better or worse, social networking sites can also spread information at an unprecedented rate. This can allow companies to reach audiences previously unattainable while at the same time not having to expend anything more than what was originally spent. This “viral” quality can be an invaluable aspect of the marketing strategy, but just because social sites can be an invaluable tool, they are not an end-all, be-all to patient recruitment.

“Let me caution that social networking is not a recruitment panacea. Rarely can a social networking campaign alone fulfill the enrollment goal for any one clinical study,” Connor stated. “Web 2.0 was simply part of the media mix, that’s not a way to generate patients for free, please understand that.”

But these sites are definitely a boon for those who have utilized them correctly thus far.

“Last year from experience, I can tell you that we generated 54% of our pre-qualified patient referrals via social networking channels and proprietary online health networks,” Connor said.


“…social networking sites work most effectively when it comes to trials that concentrate on a larger and younger audience…”

For now, social networking sites work most effectively when it comes to trials that concentrate on a larger and younger audience, as this demographic has the most social media interest and savvy. But as this generation continues to age, noticeable shifts in social media usage should follow, paving the way for improved success in recruiting clinical trial participants. In fact, from 2009 to 2010 the number of Americans over the age of 55 on Facebook increased by 923%! This astonishing statistic spells good fortune for future trial recruitment.

Social networking sites provide unlimited potential for companies looking to reach their core market, especially if they are small demographics that classic avenues traditionally failed to reach. And if they can help remove the large burden that companies have carried regarding patient recruitment, imagine what they can do in other areas of marketing and public relations. The sky is the limit and this is only the beginning.

About the author:

Sean Johnson is the managing editor of, the “preeminent destination for healthcare professional online.” He also authors the blog Avatar Newsletter, which focuses on new media marketing. You can reach him at

For more information on ways your company can utilize social media to recruit for clinical trials, check out Acurian’s White Paper, “Leveraging On-Line Social Networks for Clinical Trial Patient Recruitment,” by registering on the Acurian website.

How can social media be used to support clinical trials?