How to Engage Primary Care Providers in Clinical Trials and Connect With Patients Who Don’t Have Them

Primary care physicians and other healthcare providers are valuable links between clinical researchers and patients. So sponsors should support them and provide tools and resources to access information about clinical trials.

But not all patients have access to a primary care doctor. And demographic factors such as age and socio-economic background tend to affect this. 

In this post, we explore what sponsors and trial managers can do to engage prospective patients that don’t have primary care physicians. We also examine how relationships between trial staff and healthcare providers can be enhanced to ensure patients receive maximum support on their clinical research journey.

Demographic Factors and Access to Primary Care Physicians

Young people tend to be less likely to have a primary care provider. They travel a lot, work in different states and cities and use technological solutions such as telemedicine instead, explains medical reporter Sandra G. Boodman.

She points to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found 26 percent of the 1,200 respondents did not have a primary care provider. Findings were very different between age groups: 45 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 did not have a primary care provider, while only 12 percent of the over-65s said the same.

But it’s not just age that matters. White people and those with medical insurance tend to have access to a primary care doctor too, Dr. Jeffrey Linder, chief of general internal medicine and geriatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, explains.

Referring to a Northwestern study, Linder says people with primary care tend to receive more high-value services such as cancer screenings, counselling and testing for conditions. They are also generally more satisfied with their treatment.

Researchers and Primary Care Physicians Must Communicate

Unfortunately, having a primary care physician won’t necessarily improve a patient’s chances to be considered for participation in clinical trials. There’s a lack of engagement between research organizations and healthcare providers, says April Schultz at Forte Research, which results in fewer patient referrals to clinical research.

Part of the problem lies in false assumptions about patients, healthcare providers and the referral process itself. For instance, patients don’t always know to ask their primary care provider for information about a clinical trial. Schultz cites research that shows that only 11 percent of the more than 2,000 people surveyed knew to ask their doctor about trials. 

In fact, they’re more likely to contact a pharma company or search online. Sponsors and research organizations should encourage physicians to be more communicative with patients about clinical research. After all, doctors provide familiarity and support, along with understanding of a patient’s eligibility to participate.

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Use a Multichannel Marketing Message

There’s value to be gained by trial managers using multichannel marketing to engage patients. Mediums include e-detailing, on-demand content, mobile apps, webinars and emails.

Multichannel marketing should not be confused with multiple marketing channels. The former is synergized and connected network that all work together to maximize results and deliver personalized communication tailored to a chosen audience, explains the team at digital communication solutions provider Agnitio.

The four main categories detailing the type of communication best exchanged between pharma companies and primary care providers are those that create awareness, inform, build relationships and facilitates feedback.

There is a trend that shows primary care providers want their communication delivered digitally, explains management consultant Gareth Dabbs, who co-wrote a white paper at human data science company IQVIA. But it would be wrong to rush into a solely digital offering. A multichannel approach with a focus on the preferred channel of communication is best in order to avoid digital saturation. 

Social Media’s Value

Social media can act as a useful connection between physicians and clinical research professionals. Trial investigator Dr. Daniel E. Spratt engages many physicians through social media to discuss trial operations, site eligibility, and inclusion criteria. 

He says social media has provided a timeliness that traditional communication channels cannot, making the question-and-answer process between investigators or trial managers and interested parties more efficient.

The Power of Instagram

Facebook has long been the social platform of choice to connect with patients but Nancy Nolan, associate director of marketing communications at global biopharmaceutical company Merck, says Instagram is a powerful tool too. During its “Get Versed” campaign for human papillomavirus (HPV) awareness, for instance, Merck focused on the millennial appeal of fashion and streetwear and the network of choice, Instagram, to educate young people about the virus.

Nolan wanted to tailor traditional pharma language to attract the millennial audience so the campaign swapped the formal tone for a conversational approach, along with striking imagery to grab attention.

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Direct-To-Patient Communication Relies on Trust and Empathy

Without a primary care provider, sponsors and clinical trial managers need to ensure that any communication with patients is based on trust and empathy. This opens up the feedback channels — social media, wearables and mHealth — between trial managers and patients to support recruitment and retention. 

With electronic health records, sponsors can match patient registries with treatment areas and target their recruitment drive. But this approach requires data protection and transparency, along with trust between patients and researchers, writes clinical trial manager Jennifer Brandl.

Delivering an enhanced patient experience is important with many providers looking to invest in new digital communication tools, broaden their social media presence and improve remote patient monitoring. 

Better communication also helps patients feel more positively about the quality of information they receive from trial staff, says Suzann Johnson, therapeutic area liaison at Janssen Pharmaceuticals. The company uses a science-based framework to guide researchers in having patient-centric communications. It prizes empathy to determine issues that are most relevant.

The Quality of Messaging

Regardless of the channel or channels used to communicate with patients and/or primary care providers, the message needs to be high-quality. And when using digital communications, it’s important to test the quality of the message, advises Dan Stempel, president of MD Connect. 

So rather than settle for one version, trial staff should use A/B testing — two or more versions of the content is sent to the same audience — to determine which performs better. 

A/B testing is valuable for determining how well post titles, email subject lines or website design work. Quality rather than SEO keywords, Stempel argues, can improve the patient experience and drive conversions.

Listen to the Online Chatter

Tapping into the conversations patients are having online on forums and social networks can help clinical trial staff understand the patient experience and tailor future messaging. The quality of communication can be improved and the content made more relevant because researchers will have a better understanding of what it’s like for patients to live with their conditions, explains Rosamund Round, director of patient innovation at biopharmaceutical development services provider Parexel. 

When it comes to Alzheimer’s for example, online chatter often comes from family members and caregivers rather than the patients themselves. Knowing this can help tailor the messaging and recruitment strategies to engage and educate family and carers.

At-Home Tests Could Provide a New Communication Channel

More people are able to test themselves at home as self-diagnostic kits and genetic tests become increasingly available. 

And they’re not afraid to do it: Research shows that 45 percent of survey respondents feel comfortable testing themselves for existing or future health risks with at-home genetic tests, write David Betts and Leslie Korenda at Deloitte Insights. Specifically, 44 percent say they are comfortable drawing blood for glucose, cholesterol and inflammation tests, while 41 percent would send a stool sample to a laboratory.

This behavior suggests patients’ willingness to take control of their health and treatment in home settings, which points to the popularity of virtual trials and remote monitoring trends. However, as Betts and Korenda note, consumers need engagement from medical practitioners to explain their test results.

Manufacturing test kits, partnering with those that do or setting up information packs about the conditions being tested could provide a useful channel between trial sponsors and prospective patients.

Multichannel connections will help to engage those patients without primary care providers but also provide additional resources for physicians to help patients. The important point to remember is that finding ways to create and nurture relationships between clinical trial staff and patients — with or without a primary care provider — is key to successful research. 

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