By Cher Zavala

Of all of the challenges associated with clinical research studies, which also include plastic surgery patients, perhaps none is as potentially devastating to the outcome as the struggle to recruit study participants. Simply put, without subjects, there is no study. An astonishing percentage of studies never actually reach completion due to a lack of participants. In fact, more than half of all oncology studies, for example, fail due to the inability to attract even a single participant.

Clinical trials involving plastic surgery patients may tend to have slightly better performance in terms of recruitment, but still face many of the same challenges of other specialties. Often, recruitment efforts fail for the same reasons: The recruiting phase (or the study itself) takes too long, there are concerns about side effects from the study, the requirements of the study are too stringent, etc. However, perhaps the most common reason that studies fail to recruit enough participants is simply due to the fact that potential patients never even know that the study is taking place.

The problems in study recruitment is concerning to researchers, as subject recruitment represents a significant portion of the cost of any study, and it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get a study off the ground. And if the research fails to launch, well, that’s money wasted. While electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA) tools that streamline participation for both participants and researchers have helped, there is a clear need to improve study recruitment rates — and the best way to do this is to use a multifaceted approach.

Refining Your Message

Typically, individuals don’t even consider clinical trials until they have a serious disease or condition, and are looking for new treatment options. However, because new treatments are tested at various stages — and not all treatments are designed for those with serious or life-threatening conditions — researchers need to do more to reach potential patients before they are in that position.

The most common method of subject recruitment is via physicians, who discuss potential studies with eligible patients. This is a preferred method for many researchers, as physicians are best qualified to identify those patients who are most appropriate for a study. That being said, outreach to physicians is imperfect at best, with most unaware of all of the potential clinical trials that patients may be eligible for. Therefore, it’s also important to reach out directly to patients as well.

Attracting patients to your clinical trial begins with addressing their chief concerns. This means focusing your recruitment materials on a few key points:

  • Reiterating Your Commitment to Excellence. Because the number of plastic surgeons participating in clinical trials is relatively small when compared to the overall number of surgeons practicing, it’s vital that you share with patients how you focus on excellence, including how you ensure patient safety, the potential results of the study, your record-keeping practices, and monitoring protocols.
  • Expressing the Goal of the Study. Clinical trials are designed to move the industry forward, and patients often participate as a way of helping others and improving care in the future. By reiterating the goal of the study and the potential for moving patient care forward, you can attract more willing participants.
  • Highlighting Compensation. Many people participate in clinical trials for the compensation. While not all trials offer compensation, many seek out plastic surgery trials for the purpose of receiving “free” or low-cost procedures. It’s important to clarify the compensation structure for the study, and reveal any costs up front.

Beyond the Doctor’s Office

Once you have refined your message, recruitment efforts can extend well beyond the physician’s office.

One method that is proving effective for researchers is connecting directly with potential participants. Some researchers are working with physicians to identify potential participants and reach out to them directly via mail or email, and discuss the research opportunity directly.

However, in today’s digital world, online marketing is proving vital as well. The most successful studies are often those that use online techniques, in particular comprehensive websites that offer all of the pertinent details as well as an overall “vision” for the project. Do not be afraid to launch an online advertising campaign for your clinical trials, as they have been proven to be effective at finding new, qualified patients for your clinical trial — usually at a lower cost than more traditional media channels such as radio and television. Social media is also proving to be an effective method of recruitment, via both content and advertising.

The bottom line is that to have a successful study, you need to have participants — and the usual methods of recruitment aren’t working as well as they could. By refining your message to meet the concerns of patients and using new methods of recruitment, you can overcome these obstacles and be an important part of developing new treatments and protocols.