Could Twitter Be a Recruitment Tool for Cancer Trials?

twitterAccording to Penn Medicine Researchers study’s, Twitter has the potential to promote patient recruitment into oncology clinical trials and increase the interest of patients [1].

Enrollment into clinical studies is crucial for the development of new treatment options for patients. It is also provides opportunities for those who are not responsive to the previous treatment or who cannot afford it. However, only about five percent of adult cancer patients participate in clinical studies, thus creating a problematic situation for the drug development environment.

According to statistics, approximately 15-20% of all trials never manage to enroll a single patient, 37% of all sites in a given trial fail to meet their enrolment targets. It is also worthy to keep in mind that nearly 30% of the time dedicated to clinical trials is spent on patient recruitment and enrolment [2]. To overcome this problem, companies are trying to reach their potential clinical trial participants via dedicated websites (Novartis), Facebook, Google, YouTube etc. [2].

Physicians from Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed a number of lung cancer tweets in the social media and found that a great number of posts were about clinical trials. Twitter users were particularly interested in immunotherapy. Surprisingly, only one tweet was used to help recruitment into a clinical study.

“Twitter provides a promising and novel avenue for exploring how cancer patients conceptualize and communicate about their health, and may have the potential to promote much-needed clinical trial recruitment.” said Mina S. Sedrak, MD, MS, a fellow member of the division of Hematology/Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and first author of the study published online 3 March 2016 as a research letter titled “Cancer Communication in the Social Media Age” in JAMA Oncology.

Nowadays, there are numerous cancer care organizations and centers that use social media, including Twitter, for promotional and educational purposes. Penn Scientists tried to find out to what extent the information about clinical trails for cancer patients present on Twitter are useful.

In the pilot study, Sedrak and his coworkers analyzed a randomly chosen sample of 1,516 tweets out of a total of 15,346 that contained the phrase “lung cancer” from January 5 – 21, 2015, and assessed who read them.

More than half (56%) of the tweets were focused on psychological support and prevention topics. Nevertheless, clinical trials were the topic of almost 18% of analyzed tweets posted by patients, health professionals and other people, making these studies the second largest theme of social communication. Most of the clinical trial tweets (79%) were about immunotherapy studies, and 86% of them contained links directing readers to original websites and articles.

Authors were surprised to find that only one out of one and a half thousand analyzed tweets were linked to a patient enrollment website [1, 3]. According to them, although some more effort is needed to better assess social media involvement in cancer education, prevention and information, it is worthy to start using it as a tool for recruitment for the cancer clinical trials. On the other hand, social media patient enrollment will be the new challenge to institutional review boards with respect to non-coercive content and the assurance of patient’s privacy. New rules and policies may be needed in order to control the social media enrollment campaigns.

Sedrak sums up that “We need to learn more about the ecology of social media because it is clearly not consistently directing patients to the right places (…) social media may provide an infrastructure for cancer centers, researchers, and physicians to interact with the public in new and productive ways, including stimulating interest in new clinical trials with targeted messages that connect patients, caregivers, and families with trial enrollment websites. This potential remains largely untapped” [1].


  1. – assessed 23.06.2016
  2. – assessed 23.06.2016
  3. – assessed 23.06.2016
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