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International Clinical Trials

Digital Direction

ICT:To what extent are digital methods coming to the rescue of clinical trial recruitment?

Nick Halkitis: In a big way. The typical scenario is a contract research organisation (CRO) or sponsor seeking out a different method of recruitment after study sites have spent their recruitment budget on traditional advertising that yielded no results.

In many cases, neither clinical trial teams nor study sites realise that digital methods are much more precise and cost-effective in reaching a targeted patient population. Traditional advertising is more expensive and delivers less because it only reaches a general population.

Give us an example of how traditional and digital recruitment methods can be integrated?

In some regions, patient populations and medical conditions, our market research indicates the need for an integrated approach of digital (online) and traditional (offline) marketing, based on where and how patients seek health information. In certain US states – for example, Oklahoma and New Mexico – this approach has been warranted as the populations in both these markets are divided between offline and online activities.

Importantly, when integrating multiple channels, we track the cost, response and conversion rates of patients from each approach – utilising metrics to drive decisions about where to place advertising for optimal return.

How geared up are sponsors and CROs for patient engagement, particularly on the digital side?

Companies vary significantly. Some whole-heartedly embrace patient engagement, while others are far more cautious or even sceptical. This variance appears to be linked to knowledge, experience and the perspectives of their legal, compliance and regulatory representatives. Few companies want to innovate, instead relying on being shown what others have done before.

What do you find most rewarding in your job?

I get excited that we are making significant headway in the recruitment of important new therapies, such as recruiting mild to moderate Alzheimer’s patients for TauRx’s global clinical trials. I also enjoy working on turnaround studies, where other recruitment firms have failed, and where we can make a difference to help a pharma company expedite studies, achieve timelines and stop the ‘burn rate’ of their budgets.

Recruitment tends to get far more emphasis than retention – but how important is the latter?

Enrolling study participants quickly and efficiently into a clinical trial is important, but retaining them is just as essential. The ultimate success of any trial depends on the timely regulatory submission of complete and accurate data – so ongoing engagement with participants throughout a study is vital.

Digital recruitment is still in its infancy – how do you predict it will develop in the decade ahead?


Digital recruitment is here to stay. About 95 per cent of our recruitment methods are now digitally based – a major shift from just five years ago. In the next decade, we will see greater use of big data for even more precision marketing, the integration of online diagnostic tests as part of pre-screening, and widespread use of mobile device marketing.

How do you keep up and stay ahead in the ever-changing environment of online and social media?

By reading, watching, listening and networking. You have to have imagination, a passion for learning and, most importantly, enjoy what you do.


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Nick Halkitis is Global Vice President, Digital Marketing, at Access to Patients, a division of MediciGroup®, Inc (d/b/a MediciGlobal Ltd). He has been involved in internet marketing for more than two decades, working for many years in the tourism industry before bringing lessons on using digital strategies to the clinical trials arena.
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