Tweeting May Increase Cancer Clinical Trial Enrollment

March 11, 2016
John Schieszer

A new study is suggesting that Twitter may be an important untapped resource to increase enrollment in cancer clinical trials.

A new study is suggesting that Twitter may be an important untapped resource to increase enrollment in cancer clinical trials. Investigators at the University of Pennsylvania suggest in a new research letter in JAMA Oncology that Twitter has the potential to promote much needed trial recruitment.

The researchers analyzed thousands of lung cancer tweets on the social media site and found that a surprisingly large number were about clinical trials, particularly ones on immunotherapy. However, there were no tweets used for recruitment. Lead study author Mina Sedrak, MD, MS, who is a fellow in the division of Hematology/Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said enrollment into clinical trials can provide promising new treatment options for patients. Only an estimated 5% of adult cancer patients participate in clinical trials.

“This is an unsolved societal problem,” said Dr. Sedrak in a Penn Medicine news release. “Twitter provides a promising and novel avenue for exploring how cancer patients conceptualize and communicate about their health, and may have the potential to promote much needed clinical trial recruitment."

Numerous cancer centers and care organizations actively use Twitter as a platform for health promotion and education. However, few studies have examined the existing cancer communication on Twitter and no studies have examined the extent to which Twitter provides useful information about cancer clinical trials, according to the authors.

Dr. Sedrak and colleagues analyzed a randomly chosen sample of 1,516 tweets out of a total of 15,346 unique tweets that contained "lung cancer" from January 5-21, 2015. The researchers analyzed where the tweets lead the public. Although the majority of tweets analyzed showed that 56% focused on giving and receiving psychological support or dialogues about prevention, the study found that nearly 18% of tweets were about clinical trials. Among the tweets about clinical trials, 42% were tweeted by individuals, self-identified patients, health professionals, advocates, and nonhealth users.

The majority of the clinical trial tweets were about human research involving a drug or a device, and a significant number were focused on the excitement around immunotherapy. Among the therapeutic clinical trial tweets, 79% concerned immunotherapy and 86% had embedded links directing users to relevant news articles. The study also uncovered that virtually none of these tweets were used for recruitment nor did they provide links to enrollment websites. Only one tweet linked to a patient recruitment website.

The authors suggest that Twitter may be a viable method of disseminating health information and this could improve treatment and support for cancer patients and survivors.  It could also enhance public awareness of cancer clinical trials and enrollment into cancer clinical trials. However, the authors note that Institutional Review Boards (IRB) will need to contemplate appropriate policies on how to review social media recruitment campaigns and address emerging ethical dilemmas inherent to the use of social media and research.