Tweeting and trials: Leveraging Twitter as a patient recruitment tool

Social media, and specifically Twitter, has become a ubiquitous and transformative communicative tool for sharing health information, and could help promote visibility and facilitate patient enrollment in clinical trials, according to a recent research letter published online March 3 in JAMA Oncology.

“Effective use of Twitter might be one way to communicate with the public about cancer clinical trials and increase awareness and enrollment,” wrote lead author Mina S. Sedrak, MD, and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Studies have described cancer content on Twitter but, to our knowledge, none have examined the use of Twitter to share information about cancer clinical trials or to recruit patients for studies.”

Sedrak and her team set out to perform an analysis of tweets about lung cancer in an effort to describe dialogues related to clinical trials and to assess where embedded links led users. To do so, the researchers collected data on all posts to Twitter containing the phrase “lung cancer” between Jan. 5 and Jan. 21, 2015, which amounted to 15,346 unique tweets. They then took a sample size consisting of 10 percent of those tweets and performed an analysis on the content of the posts as well as the authors.

Of the tweets studied, 83 percent were categorized as related to the topic of lung cancer, while 17 percent were deemed to be miscellaneous and unrelated. Most relevant tweets were authored by individuals rather than organizations and focused on lung cancer support (28 percent) and prevention (28 percent), though 18 percent were related to clinical trials. Of those, 83 percent discussed therapeutic trials; 13 percent focused on nontherapeutic trials; and 4 percent highlighted other research. Overall, only one of the tweets in the sample linked users to a clinical trial recruitment website.

“Our investigation shows that the use of Twitter for support and prevention dialogues is common,” wrote Sedrak et al. “Although some tweets are about clinical trials, virtually none are used for recruitment or provide links to enrollment websites.”

The researchers believe their findings are evidence of the untapped potential of social media to inform and attract potential clinical trial participants, many of whom may benefit from the experimental treatments being studied.

“Social media is a rich and promising avenue for exploring how patients conceptualize and communicate about their specific health issues, but its potential to promote cancer clinical trial accrual remains unknown,” the authors concluded. “Future efforts are needed to explore whether Twitter can emerge as a viable medium for promoting accrual to clinical trials.”