BACKGROUND: Recruitment and retention of participants are both critical for the success of trials, yet both remain significant problems. The use of incentives to target participants and trial staff has been proposed as one solution. The effects of incentives are complex and depend upon how they are designed, but these complexities are often overlooked. In this paper, we used a scoping review to 'map' the literature, with two aims: to develop a checklist on the design and use of incentives to support recruitment and retention in trials; and to identify key research topics for the future.
METHODS: The scoping review drew on the existing economic theory of incentives and a structured review of the literature on the use of incentives in three healthcare settings: trials, pay for performance, and health behaviour change. We identified the design issues that need to be considered when introducing an incentive scheme to improve recruitment and retention in trials. We then reviewed both the theoretical and empirical evidence relating to each of these design issues. We synthesised the findings into a checklist to guide the design of interventions using incentives.
RESULTS: The issues to consider when designing an incentive system were summarised into an eight-question checklist. The checklist covers: the current incentives and barriers operating in the system; who the incentive should be directed towards; what the incentive should be linked to; the form of incentive; the incentive size; the structure of the incentive system; the timing and frequency of incentive payouts; and the potential unintended consequences. We concluded the section on each design aspect by highlighting the gaps in the current evidence base.
CONCLUSIONS: Our findings highlight how complex the design of incentive systems can be, and how crucial each design choice is to overall effectiveness. The most appropriate design choice will differ according to context, and we have aimed to provide context-specific advice. Whilst all design issues warrant further research, evidence is most needed on incentives directed at recruiters, optimal incentive size, and testing of different incentive structures, particularly exploring repeat arrangements with recruiters.