• Joanna Thomson

COVID-19 update: virtual trials and digital recruitment increase

It is no surprise to most that lockdown and social-distancing measures would mean a temporary reinvention of standard clinical protocol - but what many did not realise was that the temporary would soon be the new norm. A study published at the start of last month (June 2020) by clinical data specialists, ERT, reveals a 33% increase in the number of research organisations now using virtual trial approaches. Interestingly, this same report notes just under 10% of those surveyed had no need to employ virtual methods in the future; establishing a want for digital trial methodologies firmly in the majority of general opinion.


This news comes only weeks after the healthtech firm Tabula Rasa Healthcare (TRHC) announced their partnership with Regence that will see a series of virtual trials put into operation to test COVID-19 candidate drugs. With the help of MedWise technology, the partners will look to analyse patient data in search of a “risk score”, highlighting the impact of the tested drugs on a patient’s existing drug regime. The role of technology here will practically diminish existing risk factors in these experimental trials as research sites will be able to identify potentially hazardous coronavirus therapies without actually exposing anyone to the substances in question.


When asked about the importance of virtual trial technology to the progress of COVID-19 research, Chief Scientific Officer at TRHC, Dr Jacques Turgeon, explained to Clinical Trial Arena:


“In the current situation, the risk-benefit ratio of proposed repurposed or new therapies is difficult to determine, as there is not nearly enough evidence on the efficacy of the proposed treatments nor on their safety. Our virtual approach rapidly provides information on the safety of each therapy.”


Why virtual trials?


The thing is that virtual trials make a lot of sense in today’s ever-changing climate. It’s thought that the most significant factor currently contributing to a lack of patient and public involvement in research is a lack of awareness, both among the general public and the medical community; and educating the masses about clinical research is something that virtual trials have an advantage in. Surveys show that 89% of the UK public would want to take part in clinical research if they were diagnosed with a medical condition or disease, yet more than four in five people wouldn’t know how to volunteer. Similarly, 86% of UK physicians surveyed were not aware of any research in their area of study that were recruiting patients, but 93% would recommend participation to patients. It’s evident that it is a lack of information - and not a lack of want - that is the issue here.


Virtual trials accommodate this need as not only do they provide flexibility for both the researcher and the patient during the trial itself, but they also make the study far more accessible from the get-go. A successful virtual trial can connect all information pertaining to the clinical study to a range of digital platforms shared by the researcher and the wider public; everything from social media through to review and comparison sites. Trials can even be directly linked to the company website, meaning potential patients can sample the study before they buy (so to speak). Accessibility is something that virtual clinical trials exceed at and, as the world continues to demand more simplicity at greater speeds, the virtual trial could soon dominate the market.


Why digital recruitment?


On average, worldwide, around 86% of clinical trials fail to meet clinical recruitment targets - and this was estimated before the impact of the pandemic! To add to injury, this particular issue is not just subject-specific - it’s actually industry-wide. It’s estimated by a report for the National Cancer Institute that one fifth of all cancer clinical trials fail due to recruitment-related issues. Similar numbers were, unfortunately, found in dementia research, with Alzheimer’s Research UK finding only 5.3% of the 451, 561 people formally diagnosed with dementia in England took part in a clinical trial from 2015-16. It’s clear that current patient recruitment metrics just aren’t cutting it, and so it’s not hard to see why digital recruitment is a viable alternative.


The fact is that digital recruitment appeals to some of the core elements of today’s society - and not solely to research enthusiasts, as previous methods have relied on for success. According to data gathered in April 2020, there are approximately 4.57 billion people now online, with the recent rise of ‘big data’ emerging from the healthcare industry meaning that trials may need to seriously consider this growth in usership (for more information on ‘big data’, check out our guide to the topic here). Ultimately, this means that how we understand patients’ wants and needs has fundamentally changed over the course of just a few years; and so the old days of paper surveys and postal questionnaires are practically behind us.


This also means that the traditional ideas of how certain groups in society communicate have now become stereotypes. According to the latest figures produced by Facebook, 62% of online seniors (that is, people 65 or older who regularly use the internet) have a registered profile on the site, indicating that the older population is now more tech-aware than ever before. Patient recruitment - especially for trials concerning this particular age group, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia research - are now strongly recommended to invest in digital technologies to appeal to potential patients.



Here at Citruslabs, we’ve developed software for this very demand. Our patient-recruitment dashboard gives research sites access to a database with data from over 3 million patients on record. If that isn't enough, our patient network also draws from the leading app for baby boomers and the #1 health app across 17 countries. We make it our priority to ensure that patients are educated and interested in the trial process, and so it is not hard to see why we have a track-record in producing high patient confidence!

  • Want to find out more? Get in touch with us here, or check out our archives for all our top tips and tricks on how to adapt your clinical studies for today's ever-changing industry.


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