Top 6 tips for research recruitment success

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Kathi Huddleston leads Mason's cohort of NIH's Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes study. Among her many skills, she is a very successful participant enrollment, recruitment and retention expert. Under her leadership, the study has recruited more than 200 families since January 2024. Huddleston has also recruited over 10,000 people in the past five years for Inova.

Here Huddleston shares her top 6 tips for research recruitment success.   

1. Start thinking about Recruitment at the beginning!

​​​​​​Include a representative of your research community at the table during protocol development. Scientists often have little insight into how difficult their study is for participants. Study burden must be evaluated and considered from the participants’ view- not the researchers’.  Every research task should be evaluated for its study burden.

2. Know your community and know your community specialty resources!

Many studies fail because the researcher does not understand 1) the number of people eligible for the study in the community, and 2) of the eligible people what percent do you expect to say yes to your study? Why should they? Do you know you community? Go and talk to a group (such a clinic waiting room or social media site) to get an idea of accrual.  It is not unusual to have a 10-20% accrual rate. After all, people are busy. They don’t see the need/benefit for your research, they don’t want to be guinea pigs, and they have busy lives. I think we should be surprised that anyone consents and participates….so what are you going to do to help them understand that? 

3. Communicate and Educate!

Your Consenting Team IS THE MOST IMPORTANT element of your research. Without them the research doesn’t even start! Work with your consenting team to optimize their work environment and regulatory burden. Be flexible with them as they will need to be flexible with your participants. Most recruiting is NOT going to happen 9-5 Monday-Friday! Have written communications, video, voice mail, and text opportunities. Communication takes time and it is what participants remember about their research experience.  They will not remember the PI, they won’t remember the study name or even study goals…but they will remember the person that enrolled them, answered their questions, went out of their way to be accommodating, and cared about what they said and did throughout the study.

4. Participant Reimbursement.

Do you value them and their time? NIH has clearly stated that reimbursement is not coercive, it is respectful. As researchers, we wonder why such a great majority of study participants are well-educated and of a higher socioeconomic status. When life is full of challenges, things like “helping” in research are not easy. See number #3! How do you communicate everyone’s value and the importance of diversity in your data collection? How do you make it easier for some families who are often underrepresented to have a seat at our research table? Compensation and financial assistance can help these participants and families be part of your research. See #1 – did you have a participant from a hard-to-reach community at the table in the beginning?  It is never too late!

5. Set Goals and Metrics – and celebrate your successes!

Don’t wait until the paper is published 3 years later to celebrate! Your diverse, outgoing, and engaging research team needs immediate feedback. Give a reason to party. And YOU need to hear from them what is working and what is not working to enroll participants into the study. Why are people saying no? Did you ask?

6. Know your numbers.  

Eligible/ able to reach/ consented/ declined and why/ retention and follow up/ if they withdrew- why? Give your team a reason to go above and beyond “duty” to make your recruitment a success with study participants who – know why they are doing the study, know what they will get out of it, feel valued by the team, and feel important to be sharing in this research!