Why is it so hard to recruit for cancer research studies?

Only 3% of adults with cancer participate in a clinical trial1. Moreover, 25% of cancer research studies fail to meet their enrollment goal in time 2. How come cancer is so difficult to recruit for using conventional methods?

A lot of cancer patients get propositioned to join a study, or are at least made aware that one exists, during treatment – either directly, through billboards, or by their doctors. They’re in an environment where they’re tired, stressed and probably just want to go home.

That’s probably why social media advertising, special interest groups and forums work better for recruiting cancer patients or survivors. Social engagement is often high for cancer patients, and ads are frequently shared on both Facebook and Instagram if they’re worded well.

Another problem that’s harder to solve is that cancer treatment is taxing and leaves little energy to sign up for things like research studies – unless the benefits are made extremely clear. Can it make their everyday lives more comfortable? Improve chances of survival? Improve the lives of future cancer patients? Monetary rewards might work well for other clinical trials, but not so much for a condition like cancer. This needs to be reflected in the approved adcopy.

So in summary, here’s our best take on why cancer is difficult to recruit for:

  1. Cancer treatments are taxing and leave little energy for the patient to spend on attending research studies.

    Solution: Reach patients when they’re more relaxed in their home environment and in social groups where conversation with their peers leads to social sharing and trust. Also, outline exact timelines and number of visits.

  2. Mortality rate is high, and so participating is unlikely to feel like a priority. Monetary rewards also lose some appeal.

    Solution: Outline clearly how the research might increase chances of survival, improve comfort, etc for them or future cancer patients. Offer taxis etc where feasible rather than straight monetary compensation – they’d rather not deal with the hassle.

  1. National Cancer Clinical Trials System for the 21st Century: Reinvigorating the NCI Cooperative Group Program,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK220370.
  2. Go RS, Meyer CM, et al., Journal of Clinical Oncology 2010, 28:15s (suppl; abstr 6069).

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