In 2014, while working in the University of Pennsylvania’s department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Arden McAllister, MPH, faced a challenge that can stump research coordinators: How do you effectively reach a large, diverse group of millennial-aged volunteers who may benefit from participating in clinical trials?
Unlike some studies that investigate the efficacy of devices or drugs to treat conditions and diseases, which often give researchers access to specific patient populations, McAllister was primarily seeking young, healthy women to test new birth control and emergency contraception methods.
“We knew we had to reach out beyond the health system to find people,” said McAllister, now a research program manager at the Women’s Health Clinical Research Center in the Perelman School of Medicine.
The traditional strategies to spread the word about clinical trials involved posting advertisements to Craigslist or in the Metro newspaper with a phone number listed for interested participants to call. Not only was that method time consuming, because coordinators had to individually pre-screen every caller, but it also tended to yield a homogenous group of study volunteers, since repeat people sought out and responded to those types of ads.
The group tried several solutions — including hiring external firms to create posts for Facebook and Google Adwords — to home in on volunteers, who, would not only qualify, but may benefit from their trials.
“We weren’t seeing any uptick in eligible enrollees, and at some point we thought, we can do this ourselves, and we can do it better,” she said.
Testing a New Strategy
Like any good scientist, McAllister assessed why her old methods weren’t working and decided to re-frame her original question: Where were young women in Philadelphia hanging out, and how could she get their attention?
Scrolling through Instagram one night in 2017, McAllister clicked on a picture of jewelry that caught her eye. Minutes later, she had bought the necklace and suddenly had the answer to the problem vexing her at work.
Instagram’s ads are eye-catching and fun, McAllister realized, and the platform is where women in her target demographics are already spending a lot of time.
Within a few weeks, McAllister had designed the clinic’s first paid post — for a clinical trial testing a new type of intrauterine device (IUD) — that included a link to an online form for interested participants to fill out and submit to the researchers. Posting the ad to Instagram involved a few initial hurdles — the research group had to set up a Facebook page in order to post ads, for example — but almost immediately, the group had received dozens of inquiries and quickly started enrolling eligible participants into their trial.
Since that first ad went live, the research team has used Instagram for six different ongoing studies, including recruiting more than 170 volunteers into a single contraceptive IUD trial.
Now, McAllister employs the help of a professional designer to create the attention-grabbing cartoons that many Philadelphia women are seeing on their Instagram feeds. The ads — usually in the form of gifs — are bright, funny, and cool. One shows a gif of a uterus punching away sperm, while another shuffles through a series of emojis depicting a hookup gone wrong.
Most importantly, they’re effective. When McAllister speaks with other sites that are recruiting for the same clinical trials, Penn is recruiting “far and away” more than anyone else — and for less money.
“We’ve managed to really tap into this young, healthy lady population,” McAllister said. “At every site, people want to know what we’re doing and how we’ve been so successful.”
Helping Patients Make Better Choices
The secret to the Penn researchers’ success seems to lie in their ability to “know their audience, meet people where they’re at, and speak their language,” according to Raina Merchant, MD, the director of Penn Medicine’s Center for Digital Health and an associate professor of Emergency Medicine. Instead of passively sitting back and waiting for the right types of people to look for and find them, the researchers went out and sought those people — many of whom may not have even known anything about clinical trials. This, in turn, helped them reach a larger and more diverse patient population than they ever thought possible.
“It’s really hard to find clinical trials. You have to know where to look,” Merchant said. “How people often find health information is through the other channels, like social media, that they are already using.”
Merchant also credits McAllister and her group members for their ability to be flexible, experimental, and persistent when it came to figuring out what would work for their target audience. When they realized that Facebook wasn’t bringing them much success, they turned to a different platform – one that fit the demographic they were looking for.
What can others learn from this group? Even if they’re not in the business of creating cute Instagram ads, clinicians and researchers alike can learn to better tap into their patients’ online worlds.
“It’s about relevance and being part of people’s day-to-day lives. We think about the hospital as this place we come to once a year for a check-up, and we don’t otherwise have regular connections with our health care providers. We have more connections with Facebook and Instagram and these other brands that are trying to get our attention to buy things, to go places, to do things,” Merchant said.
“If we’re a more regular part of people’s lives, in the same way that all of these other brands are a part of our day-to-day and helping us to make choices about purchases, I think we can play a role in helping people make choices about their health and their health care.”