Twitter's Untapped Potential to Recruit Cancer Patients Into Clinical Trials

Twitter may have the potential to promote trial recruitment for cancer clinical trials by promoting interest and boosting enrollment in the trials.

Twitter may have the potential to promote trial recruitment for cancer clinical trials by promoting interest and boosting enrollment in the trials, according to researchers at Penn Medicine. Only about 5% of adult cancer patients currently participate in clinical trials. If there were more participants in cancer clinical trials, scientists believe promising new treatments would be more likely to be tested and approved.

Writing in a Research Letter published in JAMA Oncology, the authors suggest using Twitter as a platform for promoting cancer clinical trials. Currently Twitter is being used by cancer centers as a platform for health promotion and education, but few studies have examined the existing cancer communication that occurs on Twitter, and none have looked at how clinical cancer trials are addressed on the social media site.

Mina S. Sedrak, MD, MS, of the division of Hematology/Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues analyzed a randomly chosen sample of 1516 tweets from a total of 15,346 unique tweets that contained the term “lung cancer” January 5-21, 2016. They found that 56% of the tweets focused on giving and receiving psychological support or consisted of dialogues about prevention. However, 18% of tweets were about clinical trials, nearly half (42%) of which were tweeted by individuals who self-identified as patients, health professionals, advocates, and non-health users.

The authors were surprised by the large number of tweets that were about clinical trials, especially immunotherapy. However, they reported, virtually none of the tweets were used for recruitment into clinical trials and none provided links to enrollment websites.

The tweets about clinical trials were the second largest category after tweets about support and prevention. Most tweets about clinical trials were about human research involving a drug or device; quite a few were focused on excitement about immunotherapy, which was investigational at the time the study was conducted. Of the tweets that were about therapeutic clinical trials, 79% concerned immunotherapy and 86% had embedded links directing readers to relevant news articles.

“Twitter provides a promising and novel avenue for exploring how cancer patients conceptualize and communicate about their health,” said Dr Sedrak. This may have the potential to promote much-needed clinical trial recruitment. Future efforts are needed to investigate whether Twitter may be a good way to disseminate health information, possibly improving treatment and support for cancer patients and survivors, and also to improve public awareness of cancer clinical trials and enrollment into the trials.

Dr Sedrak noted that social media patient recruitment and retention programs may create challenges to Institutional Review Boards with respect to privacy and non-coercive content. Yet its potential remains largely untapped.

“We need to learn about the ecology of social media because it is clearly not directing patients to the right places,” he concluded.