Whispering Tweets into a Patient’s Ear: Top Ten Suggestions for Clinical Trial Recruiters

by Carmen R. Gonzalez, the Manager of Strategy and Communications at Healthcare Communications Group, a leading clinical trial recruitment and retention firm. Follow her at @crgonzalez or visit her site Atomic Latina.


When people think of clinical trials, they don’t often imagine digital tools being helpful to enroll patients into studies. When’s the last time you heard someone on Twitter asking about a hot new study on some promising drug to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease? It doesn’t happen…yet.

For the uninitiated, all messaging that’s used in study recruitment goes through what’s called an Institutional Review Board (IRB) for approval. This body reviews all information available to patients to ensure they are fully informed and are not being coerced into participating in a trial.  In the past, this usually meant a very strict and conservative approach in all kinds of patient-directed literature and ads. It has only been in the last few years that having study-dedicated Web sites has gained acceptance by IRBs.

Healthcare Communications Group HIV Outreach Specialist, Tim Neithercott, with experience in creatively harnessing dating Web sites in reaching out to the HIV-positive community also sees the potential of Twitter: “You can establish your network in advance, cultivating followers who want to be a part of a larger health care mission.” What differentiates Twitter from using Web pages, however, is its real-time access. “It’s always fresh and when you combine it with add-on applications, you can really expand its potential for outreach,” says Neithercott.

In an effort to encourage the pharmaceutical industry to reach the new generation of patients who rely on social technologies, I’ve prepared some ideas for leveraging the power of Twitter. With a growing Twitter audience, here’s how this forum may help bridge the gap between patient and clinical trial:

  1. Create a study presence on Twitter. When applying for IRB approval for your study Web site, include a Twitter page prototype with basic study information and a link to the study landing page. If IRB approved, that’s free advertising to potential referrals.
  2. Tweet messages that link to your study site. Your tweets can mimic what you’re using as ads on support group Web sites or Google Adwords with IRB permission. If the IRB approves a simple message like “Learn more about a new study on diabetes,” you’re golden.
  3. Introduce hashtags-a hashtag is a “#” symbol placed in front of a topic of your choosing-when tweeting to spread the word in a way that Tweeters can find easily. Something as simple as “#cancer” can quickly build momentum, while helping fellow Tweeters create associations among themselves to strengthen the community.
  4. Spread the word even if you don’t have a study Web site. With a few key clinical sites identified with hashtags by location and their phone numbers, you’ve got a ready-made viral campaign, Twitter-style. Imagine “Learn more about a new HIV study in #Los Angeles at 310-000-0000.” You get the picture.
  5. Encourage industry colleagues and community allies to re-tweet your messages. Greater study awareness translates into more choices for patients to consider, driven by genuine word of mouth.
  6. Post regular updates with your Twitter following to help keep the study fresh in their minds. Tweet about recruitment success, thank your supporters, and promote study awareness to further support enrollment. Include your Twitter chatter on the study Website using TweetRoll to build and display a widget on the fly.
  7. Use Twitter-related applications to gauge your marketing impact. For example, TweetVolume allows you see how often certain words or phrases appear in the Twitter ether. TwitterBuzz lists the most popular links. So you can monitor how popular your study name has become (or the tweet terms and links you’ve used).
  8. Create a resource list of your new Twitter friends who’ve successfully re-tweeted and help spread the word on your study. Use Tweetdeck or Twhirl to follow all Twitter feeds in one place. Thank your followers and invite them to help out on the next study. More than likely, these Twitter users know someone or are affected by the very disease you are studying and have very personal and heartfelt reasons to get involved.
  9. Use Twitter applications to help you figure out where your allies are. As a follow up to tips 7 and 8, Tweetscan can be deployed to figure who is talking about your study, while TwitterVision and MyTweetMap allow you to see where your followers are tweeting from. These are your pals, so keep track of where they are, so you can suggest new studies the next time around that make geographic sense.
  10. Be friendly, courteous, and when the study enrollment period is over, wrap up your Twitter site with one final tweeted thank you.

“Twitter is a part of the lives of today’s Obama generation, not a distraction from it,” says Neithercott. Exactly. So before you think about clinical trial enrollment, enroll into Twitter.


  • March 14, 2009

    I am always amazed by how many Twitter apps there are! I was not really participating in Twitter for a few months, and things definitely changed while I was gone.


  • March 14, 2009

    This is so on point. I just blogged about crossing Twitter over to the real world–and ways to make it happen. There is enough critical mass now on these sites to make for a real impact.

  • March 14, 2009

    Hashtag’s help you sort out your info. and with tweetdeck things are simplified. Great tips here.

  • March 14, 2009

    I never knew that we can do so many things on Twitter. Twitter never ceases to amqaze me. Thats why i love Twitter. Long live Twitter :D

  • March 14, 2009

    I do not think that twitter was a part of this president’s generation. It started before and it will go through the presidents time in office.

  • March 14, 2009

    Great post about a promising use of social networking. Your point about simple messaging using the diabetes study example caught my eye, and the rest of the information is fascinating. We’re writing extensively on our blog. Tweeting can’t be far behind!

    - Charles Martin, DDS
    Founder, Dentistry For Diabetics

  • March 14, 2009

    “When’s the last time you heard someone on Twitter asking about a hot new study on some promising drug to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease?”

    Funny you should mention this article.. just yesterday i was at my dentist
    about the cool new crown machine that mills the crown while you sit and wait.. took some twitpics and tweeted while she was creating my crown seach twitter

    I was able to post a few pics from my twitterberry while in the office.. of the system and my crown before it went in…

    I then showed her my website were the twitter widget showed her the tweets about the procedure.. now my DR wants to have this on her site.. !!! the Power of twitter never cease to amaze me..


  • March 14, 2009

    Working in Medical Research field myself, this article is on the mark on how an entire institute can leverage social networking sites such as twitter. Kudos!

  • March 17, 2009

    Than you interesthing post.

  • April 12, 2009

    I didn’t realize there was this type of movement, but I definitely support what is trying to be accomplished. Best of luck!

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