Researcher Toolbox: Recruitment Strategies

Ilene Ladd and Jody McCullough are Project Managers for Geisinger and Penn State, respectively.

PaTH project managers and research assistants use a variety of methods to recruit study participants, such as reaching out to potential participants through traditional means like email, phone calls, direct mailings, and in-person conversations. They also use more innovative methods such as electronic patient portals and Best Practice Alerts (BPAs). BPAs are especially useful because they electronically notify health care providers who use electronic health record systems when a patient may qualify for a given study and therefore help facilitate conversations between clinicians and potential study participants during face-to-face encounters.

While each of these strategies has advantages, project managers and research assistants face a number of challenges when recruiting study participants. For instance, Elise Gatsby, a research assistant at the University of Utah, says making initial contact can be difficult.

"One large challenge is getting in touch with people. Many phone calls and messages go unanswered," she says. "Approaching inpatients [people who are admitted to the hospital] has been successful as you have a captive audience but can also backfire as patients are dealing with immediate health concerns and may not feel up to joining research studies at that time."

Stacey Dillon, project manager for the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC, says busy schedules are often an obstacle, too.

"People are so busy. All people, including potential participants." She finds offering non-traditional hours helps overcome this challenge.

"Students are often available to make follow-up phone calls in the evenings when many people are home from work. That’s a great way to reach people who are unavailable to talk during the business day. Allowing participants to do interviews over the telephone or answer questions over email can also bridge the scheduling gap."

"Our biggest challenge is resources," says Cecilia Dobi, the project manager at Temple University. "The personal touch can take time - making phone calls, meeting people in clinic. Also, when electronic means can't be implemented, we have to revert to snail-mail for our outreach. This is much more labor intensive than clicking a few buttons for a mass email."

Project Manager Ilene Ladd of Geisinger says it can also be difficult to recruit patients in person when other studies are recruiting at the same time. When this happens, her team has to be careful not to recruit the other study’s participants because the patient populations can overlap.

While recruiting in person does present challenges such as these, most project managers find it to be the most effective strategy.

"Patients really seem to enjoy and prefer the direct person-to-person experience," says Dobi.

"I believe patients appreciate the personal touch and welcome the opportunity to discuss research opportunities in an environment where they can ask questions," agrees Gatsby.

No matter what recruitment strategy is used, project managers and research assistants are available to help patients who are considering joining a PaTH study.

"We provide a thorough explanation of what the study includes, what to expect, how often participation is needed, and what to do if they have difficulty or no longer want to participate," says Jody McCullough, the project manager at Penn State. "Some patients wish to speak with their physician first, and we encourage them to take the necessary steps to be comfortable with their decision."

"Treating potential participants with respect and showing gratitude for their contribution to science is key," says Dillon.

Visit to learn more about PaTH’s studies and see if you may be eligible to participate in one.

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