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Easing the pain of clinical trial recruitment: using social intelligence to find the patients you need

Clinical trials will always be an essential part of medical research and new drug development. As competition for new medical interventions grows, so does the number of trials. There are currently some 150,000 studies taking place worldwide.

For pharmaceutical companies, the cost of clinical trials is significant. According to EFPIA, clinical trials represent approximately 60% of a product’s total development costs, with challenges around patient recruitment constituting a large proportion of this cost. Thousands of volunteers are required for each study and time taken to enrol is on the critical path of all clinical trials. Enrolment is inevitably slower than planned and uptake low. Studies suggest that less than 5% of adults with cancer, for example, would participate in a study. In addition, the drop-out rate is high, with the British Medical Journal reporting non-completion rates up to 20%. Because of this, finding, targeting and keeping the required number of patients can delay a new product’s time-to-market by months, which represents revenue-loss running to tens of millions of dollars.

Social intelligence offers a fast and inexpensive way to increase patient participation in clinical trials. 

Through sophisticated analysis of the online activity of billions of social media users, clinical study sponsors can find the patients they need to take part in trials – and at a much lower cost than traditional methods. Furthermore, by developing a better understanding of what motivates the patients, they can be influenced to participate without contravening ethical standards.

Finding the right patients

Recently we worked with the Medical Research Network, a specialist clinical consultancy, to help a global biopharmaceutical firm design an effective clinical trial recruitment strategy. Recruitment was falling behind in the programme and for commercial reasons there was a real need to recruit patients fast – within five weeks.

Using PA’s social intelligence methodology, we analysed the vast quantity of social media data – over 170 billion online conversations linked to the study indication – and then filtered and segmented the information to get a picture of the potential patient base. To meet the exact protocol requirements, we also researched how the data linked the indication to multiple factors – such as pre-existing medical conditions, concomitant treatment, etc. We were able to provide a global estimate of 120 million potential patients, broken down by country.

Motivating patients to come forward

After identifying the patient hotspots, we needed to encourage patients to apply to take part in the trial. Since approaching the patients directly would be time-consuming, and would potentially make them uncomfortable, we sought instead to find out which sites influenced them, and ensured that the study details were visible on these channels.

Our analysis revealed that these 120 million patients were most strongly influenced by just 10 key influencers, who were most active on Twitter. It was therefore relatively straightforward to approach these influencers and publicise the clinical trials.

Enriching the trial

Due to its high accuracy, social intelligence can be used to define very specifically the health profile of potential trial patients. In turn, this can provide valuable insight into the efficacy of a study drug within the different patient profile groups. You can, for example, use social intelligence to determine whether potential patients suffer from concomitant diseases or other issues – such as HIV or drug addiction – and then use this information to understand when and how the approved drug should best be prescribed.

Maintaining ethical standards

Using only consented and publicly available data, social intelligence does not contravene the correct ethical approach to clinical trial recruitment. It does not misuse confidential information and does not jeopardise the privacy of individual patients. After we developed the findings of our recent work, we then worked with the ethics committee to produce the recruitment document in the approved process.

The detailed and sophisticated searching that social intelligence offers allows clinical study sponsors to find a higher density of potential trial participants than by other means. And while effective recruitment of patients will always be an issue in the clinical research process, there is no reason why patients should remain unaware and unmotivated to take part when there are new ways to reach out to them. As more and more people use social media as part of their daily lives – especially as a key way to find and share information about their health – social intelligence will only grow in effectiveness.

To discuss specific ways of improving clinical trial recruitment using social intelligence, please contact us now.

George Botsakos
Life sciences
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