The future of clinical trial recruitment

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Health Technology Special Feature

The future of clinical trial recruitment

By Nico Coetzee, Chief Marketing Officer, CureClick


The Elephant in the Recruitment Room

Clinical trial recruitment is notoriously difficult. Finding, vetting, qualifying, and managing trial participants is time-consuming and expensive, with numerous obstacles hindering every step of the arduous process. From precise patient identification to compelling behavioral motivation, traditional approaches often fall short and cost pharma companies millions of dollars and months if not years of delays in drug development. 

Digital marketing technology held the promise of changing all that, thanks to its proven success in targeting and persuading increasingly nuanced and finicky consumer segments. By applying the same techniques used to reach, engage, and convert exactly the right audience for select products and services, clinicians, investigators, and sponsors hoped to boost clinical trial enrollment and retention.

And yet, that digital panacea has never been fully realized. Despite attempts at applying advanced social media marketing, programmatic ad buying, and other proven tools of today’s communication toolkit, clinical trial recruitment has not become any easier, faster, or more effective. Long delays and exorbitant expenses persist, as researchers and their host companies are becoming increasingly frustrated with the process. 

 Why hasn’t digital technology lived up to its early promise? Do these proven techniques in consumer packaged goods, entertainment, and media not work for healthcare? Are patients somehow different from everyday consumers? Are the demands of the clinical trial recruitment process and the behavioral intent of its participants more subtle and detailed than those of other targeted audiences? Where is the gap? 

Technology Alone is Never Enough

Perhaps the answer rests where it always does: with the end-user. Our industry has become so focused on making clinical trial recruitment more efficient, faster, and economical that we have largely forgotten the core of what we do and why we do it: ultimately improving and extending the lives of those who need it the most. Obsessed with the technology and its potential, we’ve lost sight of the patients. 

“Now hold on…” you might be saying. “My organization truly cares. We keep people at the heart of what we do.” And likely you do. The problem is that digital technology, in and of itself, extends no empathy to patients battling a life-threatening disease, nor does it have any clue as to their individual concerns or challenges. A proven tool, tech is merely a means to an end. Everything must start with the people. 

Digital is by design lightning fast. Human emotion, in stark contrast, is slow, imprecise, and often muddled. Far from flicking a switch, making direct contact and engaging in meaningful conversations that assuage concerns and get patients motivated to participate in a clinical trial is a laborious, time-intensive process that demands empathy, sensitivity, and a willingness to commit resources. 

 The false hopes have ended, and much of the clinical trial recruitment industry is finally coming to terms with the failed promise that digital technology alone can solve its challenges. Instead, we are learning to first prioritize the needs of the patient, and once fully understood utilize a hybrid approach of genuine human connection with proven technological power to better find, engage, and motivate them. 

Tapping into the Soul of Recruitment

The irony is that human interaction is clearly at the heart of clinical trial recruitment, a process where empathy and connection is most sought-after. Unlike consumers, who shop for products and services as a flattering reflection of themselves, suffering patients are in a vulnerable, often terrified state where they have no choice but to deal with their extremely dangerous, often life-threatening disease. 

Putting ourselves in a patient’s shoes is the first step toward better understanding their pain, and hopefully begin to address their needs. Although participating in a clinical trial may seem to us an obvious and even inevitable path for any qualified patient, their hesitancy is borne of powerful factors we are behooved to better understand — and not through just the tech, but through our own hearts. 

The best digital marketing technology in the world may actually engage the hardest-to-find patient, but a cliched tagline, insensitive slogan, or inappropriate image may nonetheless fail to make any impact whatsoever. Instead, desperate patients in dire straits need an emotionally resonant story, one that builds empathy and trust, and unabashedly yet sensitively shares a compelling reason to believe. 

After all, an algorithm will never hold the hand of a patient as they consider whether a trial is safe, nor assure them that their active participation has the potential to advance medical science for thousands of others just like them. By infusing the human touch first, and then amplifying it with the help of precision targeting, dynamic content, and big data, researchers can successfully apply the best of both worlds. 

People-First in Practice

So what does genuine human connectivity and empathy look like within the clinical trial recruitment process, and how can it drive proven digital marketing technology to ultimately boost enrollment and retention? At CureClick, we have demonstrated for pharma companies large and small, across disease states rare and broad, that it begins with real people who have a real connection to these trials. 

Our model looks similar to what many experts call “influencer marketing.” At its core, our methodology relies on a very simple, demonstrably proven idea: people trust people more than they trust brands or platforms. Applied to the recruitment space, we utilize “ambassador marketing” to help patients make crucial decisions through the encouragement of their peers, rather than a nod from an algorithm. 

Make no mistake, we have a significant investment in the technology that amplifies and quantifies our efforts. But we start with people and their stories to build trust and a genuine human connection, thereby sharing heartfelt reasons and emotionally resonant rationale. Rather than ‘target,” we establish real human connections that demonstrate the power of clinical trials as a transformative experience. 

Currently, within our database, thousands of people understand and believe in the hope these trials have to offer. They convey credibility through the cultivation of followers who trust them to weed out the hype, misinformation, and false promises. Our ambassadors have established a high degree of credibility thanks to long-term commitment and an eagerness to go beyond a marketing headline or call-to-action. 

Credibility First. Amplification After.

Our ambassadors have earned the trust of their fellow patients over years of dedicated service across hundreds of disease states. None of them are fly-by-night influencers who claim to know the area but have no real knowledge; instead, they are established and proven subject matter experts in their own right who are well educated and deeply empathetic to the needs and expectations of their peers.

That human connection is where CureClick begins and ends. Once established, we unabashedly and effectively use the latest and most innovative digital marketing technology to amplify their stories and messages across the most relevant and impactful channels, from Twitter to Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, or Snapchat video. Bottom line: the tech serves the connection and not the other way around. 

Our “human-first” approach is how we achieve the success that we do in clinical trial enrollment for sponsors. Because we know how the emotional calculus of trial participation works, and we take the time to do it right. The ongoing impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital trends and further substantiated the need to focus on the people and let the tech follow in those footsteps. 

As the nation and world slowly return to normalcy, that need for patient empathy and connection has only increased. With most clinical trials shut down over the past 18 months, the industry is poised to pick up where it left off with renewed gusto and laser-sharp focus on patient needs and expectations. Now is the perfect time to blend head with heart, and utilize a hybrid approach to indeed succeed. 

The Future is Now

The CureClick “ambassador marketing” engagement model didn’t change when COVID hit, because it didn’t have to. Digital in execution with a human component at its core, we continue to seamlessly scale to need with our eminently adaptable, agile approach to patient-centric clinical trial recruitment. Hearing from peers rather than companies, patients know they can trust our messaging and motivation. 

The future of clinical trial marketing and recruitment is now, thanks to our eagerness to listen, and our ability to share. Keeping the people who participate in our studies foremost in our thoughts even as we create new and novel ways to reach and connect with them is our mantra. The smartest targeting algorithm means nothing if a patient can’t emotionally connect to content that resonates. 

Our health and wellness is arguably most important, yet healthcare paradoxically remains the slowest industry to adopt technologies that are already routine for shopping, transportation, and entertainment. Unlike those other verticals, our audiences are afraid and overwhelmed; we need to be there for them as fellow compassionate human beings, not programmable machines no matter how efficiently precise. 

Like most things in life, balance is key. The companies of tomorrow that already thrive today are those that use technology not as a means to an end, but as the end of a process infused with meaning. By understanding patients first, CureClick makes otherwise mechanistic technology emotionally resilient and compellingly effective on the human level. The result is more robust clinical trials, benefiting all.