• Joanna Thomson

COVID-19 symptom trackers: what we can learn about trial recruitment

In recent weeks, health technology company Zoe has partnered with King’s College London to create and launch their COVID-19 symptom tracker in the UK. The latest figures from the app suggest that over 3 million people are now registered and tracking their symptoms, making it the largest public science project of its kind anywhere in the world. With reports that Zoe’s app is looking to recruit in the US, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are almost ready to launch their own, similar project, we take a look at the key issues surrounding this new form of patient recruitment and what it could mean for clinical protocol.


Digitalisation


The most notable advancement of the COVID tracker programmes has been the switch from manual contact tracing to that of a more digital methodology. To maintain sustained epidemic suppression (that is, to keep the rate of infection low), digital contact tracing is thought to be a more efficient method. This is because, as smartphone devices can be linked in a digital network, it is far quicker to track the rate of infection and notify individuals who have been in contact with carriers of the disease. With more and more data coming in everyday, and the number of users increasing at a fast pace, it’s become apparent that a lack of physical testing (i.e. solid proof of infection to back up the existing data) really is the main issue that underpins this methodology's potential defects.


So, how exactly does this affect patient recruitment? For one, it is clear from the number of users that we are seeing an amazing boost in public awareness of - and involvement in - clinical research. Zoe’s easy-to-use app is working to boost confidence in potential patients as the public familiarise themselves, on a daily basis, with the kind of interfaces that researchers now, in our digital age, build their clinical studies around. In addition, the app is proving that there is perhaps more of a willingness, now, by the public to use technology as a means of monitoring their own health and, as a need for humanitarianism in this crisis evolves, the health of the nation as well. As the industry has always had problems with traditional methods of recruitment, with (on average) 85% of clinical studies failing to meet their targets, it is refreshing to see that digitalisation and technology may provide a solution to resolving these issues.


Data Protection


Despite the streamline effect that technology appears to be having, the problematic side of a reliance on tech in clinical research predominantly comes down to - especially today - concerns about patients’ data (how it’s being stored and how it’s being used). With site cookies and Facebook’s privacy policy being among only a few of the big topics of interest within this area, there is now a lot of pressure on research sites - when employing these kinds of trial technologies - to be able to satisfy certain rights and laws to operate ethically and legally. This was, in fact, a concern among certain legal professionals surrounding the announcement of the digital tracing app; as a source identified by The Guardian suggested that the app could result in “significantly greater interference with users’ privacy and require greater justification”. These claims came as a result of an initial uncertainty about the app’s ability to keep running in the background of a phone’s operating system, which of course could conflict with certain data protection laws.


However, research sites should definitely not be put off by these concerns as Zoe ensures that their application abides the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and will house collected data in the internationally-renowned SAIL Databank. The lesson here is that transparency is essential as the laws around data protection are now heavily debated and subject to change. Research sites looking to technological solutions should make it of vital importance that their private policy is clear and understood by patients at all phases of the study. In addition, caution must be taken as the patient’s right to privacy varies from country to country; note the differences between America, Britain, and the EU. Therefore, to avoid any potential issues it is highly recommended that researchers seek reliable aid and advice in established analytics and digital recruitment companies.



Here at Citruslabs, we've created the ideal patient recruitment dashboard to help any researcher improve their current metrics. With over 3 million patients on record, we ensure research sites are connected to a thoroughly educated and engaged pool of participants; so, it is no wonder why we have such high patient confidence! Now, we would say that other models are available - but this would be a lie. In fact, unlike that offered by other patient recruitment companies, our easy-to-use dashboard is the first-of-its-kind for the market; giving researchers a unique insight into their patients’ wants and needs via industry-leading technology. The future of clinical recruitment starts here.

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