Using digital tools in the recruitment and retention in randomised controlled trials: Survey of UK Clinical Trial Units and a qualitative study

Amanda Jane Blatch-Jones, Jacqueline Nuttall, Abby Bull, Louise Worswick, Mark Mullee, Robert Peveler, Stephen Falk, Neil Tape, Jeremy Hinks, J. Athene Lane, Jeremy C Wyatt, Gareth Griffiths*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
221 Downloads (Pure)


Background Recruitment and retention of participants in Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) is a key determinant of success, but is challenging. Trialists and UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) Clinical Trials Units (CTUs) are increasingly exploring the use of digital tools to identify, recruit and retain participants. The aim of this UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) study was to identify what digital tools are currently used by CTUs and understand the performance characteristics required to be judged useful.Methods A scoping of searches (and a survey with NIHR funding staff), a survey with all 52 UKCRC CTUs and 16 qualitative interviews were conducted with five stakeholder groups including trialists within CTUs, funders and research participants. A purposive sampling approach was used to conduct the qualitative interviews during March-June 2018. Qualitative data were analysed using a content analysis and inductive approach.Results Responses from 24 CTUs (46%) identified that database-screening tools were the most widely used digital tool for recruitment, with the majority being considered effective. The reason (and to whom) these tools were considered effective was in identifying potential participants (for both Site staff and CTU staff) and reaching recruitment target (for CTU staff/CI). Fewer retention tools were used, with Short Message Service (SMS) or email reminders to participants being the most reported. The qualitative interviews revealed five themes across all groups: ‘security and transparency’, ‘inclusivity and engagement’, ‘human interaction’, ‘obstacles and risks’ and ‘potential benefits’. There was a high level of stakeholder acceptance of the use of digital tools to support trials, despite the lack of evidence to support them over more traditional techniques. Certain differences and similarities between stakeholder groups demonstrated the complexity and challenges of using digital tools for recruiting and retaining research participants.Conclusions Our studies identified a range of digital tools in use in recruitment and retention of RCTs, despite the lack of high quality evidence to support their use. Understanding the type of digital tools in use to support recruitment and retention will help to inform funders and the wider research community about their value and relevance for future RCTs. Consideration of further focused digital tool reviews and primary research will help to reduce gaps in the evidence base.
Original languageEnglish
Article number304 (2020)
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 3 Apr 2020

Structured keywords

  • BTC (Bristol Trials Centre)
  • BRTC


  • digital tool
  • participant recruitment
  • participant retention
  • qualitative
  • survey
  • clinical trials unit


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