Social Media Has Unrealized Potential for Clinical Trial Communication and Recruitment

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The social media platform Twitter could develop into a useful tool for communicating with the public about cancer clinical trials and for recruiting participants. This study examined tweets about lung cancer to determine dialogues specific to lung cancer clinical trials and where embedded links about lung cancer clinical trials lead.1

Mina Sedrak, MD, a hematology and oncology fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and colleagues found 26 059 tweets containing the term lung cancer between January 5 and 21, 2015. After excluding duplicates, 15 346 unique tweets remained. The researchers performed content analysis on a random sample of 1516 tweets and the tweets' authors (tweeters).

Tweets were categorized as related (83.1%; n=1260) or unrelated (16.9%; n=256) to lung cancer. Tweets related to lung cancer were further categorized based on the content of the tweet. For example, 28.4% of tweets (n=358 of 1260) were related to emotional support for patients with lung cancer and 28.3% (n=357) were related to the prevention of lung cancer. Most tweeters were individual people rather than organizations.

Clinical trial tweets comprised 17.5% (n=221) of the sample. Of clinical trial tweets, 82.8% (n=183) pertained to therapeutic trials, 12.7% (n=28) to nontherapeutic trials, and 4.5% (n=10) to basic research. In therapeutic clinical trial tweets, 79% (n=144) related to immunotherapy and 86% (n=158) contained embedded links to news articles. Only 1 tweet contained a link to a patient recruitment website.

“Social media could become a very useful tool for clinical researchers but may also pose some challenges with respect to both noncoercive content and the assurance of privacy, both of which the IRBs [institutional review boards] will need to consider carefully. Future efforts are needed to explore whether Twitter can emerge as a viable medium for promoting accrual to clinical trials,” concluded the researchers.


1. Sedrak MS, Cohen RB, Merchant RM, Schapira MM. Cancer communication in the social media age [published online ahead of print March 3, 2016]. JAMA Oncol. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.5475.

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