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Southampton Health Technology Assessments CentreNews

Digital tools for recruiting and retaining people in randomised controlled trials: A systematic map of the evidence base just published

Published: 12 June 2020
Digital tools
Social media, email, text messaging and the internet can all be used in randomised trials

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are crucial sources of evidence to inform health policy and practice. However, RCTs routinely struggle to recruit and retain adequate numbers of people, meaning that their results are often delayed or the trials have to be abandoned altogether.

The need to improve recruitment and retention in RCTs has been acknowledged as a key research priority, and the rapid recruitment of people into clinical trials of effective treatments, tests and vaccines for COVID-19 is currently high on the public agenda.

Digital tools, including (among others) social media, email, text messaging and the Internet, could help with the recruitment and retention of people in RCTs, but a comprehensive overview of the evidence base has been lacking. To help address this knowledge gap, SHTAC, together with colleagues from the Wessex Institute, have investigated how digital tools are currently used for RCT recruitment and retention, as reported in two papers published in the open access journal TRIALS (discussed in this editorial). 

Our systematic map paper shows that a wide range of digital tools has been investigated for assisting RCT recruitment but there has been more limited research on retention. The evidence base largely consists of observational studies which have methodological weaknesses, and very few studies have investigated users’ satisfaction with digital tools which could influence whether the tools would be successful in practice. Overall, our findings point to a need for more rigorous research to understand how effective these tools would be if widely adopted.

The systematic map is provided in a freely accessible Excel database accompanying the published paper and may be updated or modified by researchers with an interest in this area.

For more information on SHTAC’s work on health research methodology please visit our Research page.

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