Research staff can easily optimize their study listings on Studyfinder, Penn State’s searchable clinical research listings website.
These strategies can also be applied to other patient or participant materials or resources.
By communicating clearly to the public, research teams can save time and effort, while helping potential volunteers overcome barriers to participating in medical research.
This information was adapted from the white paper “Nine Strategies to Improve Studyfinder Recruitment.” For a copy of the white paper, email Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute at email@example.com.
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Ways to Improve StudyFinder Recruitment
The study title and description are the first items a potential participant will read after inputting their search criteria. It introduces a complex research study to the reader, who may not fully understand the technical nature of the study. Aim to keep both items direct and concise.
Which of the following study titles is easier to read?
- “A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, multicenter, event-driven Phase III study to investigate the efficacy and safety of…”
- “A clinical research study to…”
Both examples state the same thing, but the second example is a better, more concise option.
Study descriptions can also become too long. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Plain Language guidelines, a sentence should not exceed around 20 words in length. Additionally, the studies with the most Studyfinder engagement have an average of 102 words in the study description. Use concise language by eliminating unnecessary or redundant words to help cut back the description length.
Research teams can improve their recruitment message by writing a succinct title and aiming for five sentences or less in the description. Concise writing has many benefits and is strongly recommended for all patient-facing research literature.
There is a short time to grab a potential volunteer’s attention. There is an even shorter time to hold their attention. When writing study details, it is important to consider the audience.
Is the audience the parents of children who have Type 1 diabetes? Or is it seniors who are experiencing joint pain? How would the study listing differ between these two groups?
Taking a moment to consider the audience will help to craft a more meaningful study listing.
Also consider whether healthy volunteers are needed. Some participants in the Studyfinder Perceptions survey reported confusion on whether healthy volunteers were eligible or not. Healthy volunteers may be less familiar with specific medical conditions; remember this when writing study details.
The National Institutes of Health definition of plain language is grammatically correct language that includes complete sentence structure and accurate word usage. Every research team should write their study listing in plain language.
Keep in mind that plain language does not mean unprofessional writing or “dumbing down” or “talking down” to the reader. Plain language connects the study team with its audience. Plain language can help a broader population of potential volunteers overcome health literacy barriers to participating in a study.
Some practical tools for writing a study listing in plain language are:
- Spell out an acronym first, then add the acronym in parentheses.
- Include a call to action by stating what is wanted of volunteers in the first sentence.
- Avoid technical, scientific, difficult words.
- Use personal and inclusive pronounces like I, you we, they or theirs.
- Use positive instead of negative words.
- Use only active voice.
- Break up blocks of descriptive text.
The studies with the highest Studyfinder engagement averaged a noticeably better readability score, which means that these studies follow many plain language guidelines.
For details on the National Institutes of Health’s Plain Language Initiative, visit its website; among the resources offered is a guide called “Plain Language: Getting Started or Brushing Up” that may be of use.
Participants often want to know if compensation for time and effort will be provided. Many studies listed in Studyfinder pay their participants, but unfortunately, only a few studies mention compensation in their listings.
Include compensation details in the study description. Future StudyFinder upgrades may include a checkbox in CATS IRB for compensation. In the meantime, staff can either keep it general by saying “compensation will be provided,” or can specifically list the amount to be provided.
If the compensation in the study has been approved by the IRB, then listing it in Studyfinder or other recruitment materials is not considered coercive.
When recruitment is open to the public, it is possible to have many inquiries from participants who are ineligible. This can cause additional administrative work for research teams and can be frustrating for potential study participants. Staff can avoid this extra work by creating an IRB-approved REDCap or Qualtrics pre-screener survey that asks direct questions about a potential volunteers’ eligibility for the study.
A future StudyFinder upgrade may include the ability to add a pre-screener survey link directly in the listing. In the meantime, provide that link to potential participants upon contact.
Anticipate general questions from participants. Participants typically want to know details of what will be expected of them during the study. Consider writing the study description with answers to these questions already included.
Some common questions from a potential volunteer may be:
- How much time will I have to invest?
- Where will I have to go?
- What is expected of me?
- Will I qualify?
- Who is doing the research?
If a study listing does not answer most of these questions, then it may need to be revised.
This strategy seems obvious, but participants particularly want access to trustworthy staff who can quickly answer questions. Fortunately, nearly all participants from the Studyfinder Perceptions survey said that study staff responded promptly to their inquiry. Accurate contact information should be included in the listing, as well as any further correspondence with study participants.
For emails, make sure to include a University email (@pennstatehealth.psu.edu or @psu.edu). It may be beneficial to have a research team or general staff email account that can be accessed by multiple team members (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org). This also helps prevent delays when a contact is out of the office.
Remember to also confirm that the phone number listed is staffed and that the study contact name is included (both first and last name). This simple step can help potential volunteers overcome barriers to participating in a study.
Video is an inclusive platform that can reach a greater audience. Video has become so popular that some experts say that a third of all time spent online is dedicated to watching videos. This platform is an excellent way to engage potential volunteers with research or a clinical trial.
Videos should be under five minutes and should contain relevant content in plain language. Both Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the Penn State Health Office of Marketing and Communications can offer video guidance.
All video material to be shared online must follow Penn State Policy AD-69 and WCAG 2.1 standards. Any videos used on Studyfinder or any College of Medicine-managed web property must be approved by Penn State Health Office of Marketing and Communications for brand and accessibility requirements.
Research teams can submit requests for review via the form at med.psu.edu/webform.
After a potential volunteer sends a message through Studyfinder, use this opportunity to further connect with them by answering questions and giving them next steps.
Hold their attention by responding in a professional and clear tone and within 48 hours. Don’t forget to include the study team’s contact information, the study title and a sincere “thank you for your interest.”
Note that the volunteer’s personal information may need to be removed from this correspondence. Contact the IRB for assistance or questions on these requirements.
The project described was supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health, through Grant UL1 TR002014. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. The Pennsylvania State University version of StudyFinder is customized and supported by the Pennsylvania State University Clinical and Translational Science Institute under grant UL1TR000127. StudyFinder was developed by the University of Minnesota Clinical and Translational Science Institute and is supported by the NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award: UL1TR000114.