clinical trials

Have you ever wondered if clinical trials include measurements from diverse populations? Can social media help this issue?


Researchers Arthur Caplan and Phoebe Friesen looked into this matter themselves. Their conclusion: Yes; social-media applications have the potential to open up the world of clinical testing to gender, racial and ethnic populations that heretofore may have been overlooked.

They say such an effort ultimately can be the key to unlocking medical information that can lead to cures for many maladies for many people around the world. Researchers from New York University published a perspective piece in PLOS Biology discussing the potential for social media to increase diversity in clinical research populations.

They acknowledge that a great deal of medical information disseminated to the greater population largely has been derived from clinical trial data from a generally young, upper-to-middle-class American white male population. And they state such results likely examine a fraction of potential outcomes, given that different populations can have different factors influencing studies’ results. For example, existing research suggests that cardiovascular health issues vary among diverse populations.

Enter the internet, with social media applications like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, among others, that allow people worldwide to connect and interact with one another. The study’s authors state that if clinical-trial advertisements are announced on such sites, word about clinical trial recruiting will become more widespread. They cite internet usage as a convenient tool for researching medical information and social media’s customization features enabling outreach to target desired populations.

They referred to, and attributed in a study footnote, that 28% of Black and Hispanic internet users maintain a Twitter account and that 47% of Black and 38% of Hispanic internet users log into turn to their Instagram accounts. Among whites, just 20% and 21% use Twitter and Instagram, respectively. Caplan and Friesen posit that advertising for clinical-trial participants on such venues potentially would allow — and maybe even encourage — a diverse population to apply for Phases I, II or III of clinical trial inclusion. However, currently, such social-media recruitment is limited, according to one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology. It reports that of 1500 lung cancer tweets, or queries, just one — a mere .06667% — referred to study recruitment.

Overall, this study’s strength heralds the fact diversity in clinical trials has been lacking, leading to potentially skewed results when viewed across a spectrum of populations. Another strength stems from the authors’ acknowledging that any online recruiting must adhere to guidelines the United States Food and Drug Administration established regarding clinical trial recruitment. They state this kind of internet advertising legally cannot be free-wheeling, citing the FDA’s stipulations: That such ads include a prohibition against promising participants a cure or promoting a trial as medical treatment without charge; and also provide full and complete disclosure that some in the trial will receive the experimental therapy while others will receive only placebos. The authors also cite the Revitalization Act of 1993, which mandates that research funded by America’s National Institutes of Health include more women and minorities in clinical trials, but acknowledge that limited effort has been made for such outreach.

A study weakness crops up when its authors fail to give specific arguments about how social-media companies or clinical-trial promoters can refine and target their desired populations.


Written By: Susan Mercer Hinrichs, MA, MBA, CPhT

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