E-Patients are a huge untapped population of potential clinical trial participants, with more than 80% of patients online wanting to take part, a new survey has found.

According to the Blue Chip Patient Recruitment white paper, 81% of online patients were interested in participating in clinical trials but only 16% had done so.

Further findings identified this low participation rate to be because of a “serious lack of awareness about participation opportunities” – only 30% of respondents said they were aware of the major patient recruitment sites such as ClinicalTrials.gov, CentreWatch.com and CISCRP.org.

The authors conclude there is a tremendous opportunity to educate E-Patients and build awareness. “More targeted social media strategies can help recruitment specialists disperse this information where it is needed most,” they say. Indeed, 80% of patients would prefer to receive clinical information online from a physician and 70% were happy to receive this from a healthcare association.

“Social media is a powerful medium for reaching patients engaged in their health. It’s a vast new territory where brands and marketers can interact directly with patients to find out what they really want. It offers unprecedented access to patients actively participating in healthcare discussions online,” the authors say.

Improving the efficiency of clinical trials through social media communication can have huge implications for the healthcare industry through interactions with the E-Patient population – actively engaged members of health-related social media networks. An estimated 85% of clinical trials experience delays in patient recruitment and some estimates suggest that one month of delays can account for $40 million in lost sales for a newly approved prescription drug.

However, the survey also highlighted that clinical trials had adopted a negative stigma in recent years, which contributed to delays in recruitment. There was concern about the safety of clinical trials with 41% of individuals stating this, while 36% were also concerned about trial credibility.

“While the goal is to recruit patients for the trial, it is important to first establish a role in the community,” the white paper says. “If the communication via online message forums is solely about the trial, the representatives will most likely be seen as intruders and message pushers. They can build credibility by posting relevant content, being attentive to the tenor of the dialogue, being consistent with the frequency of their interactions and being timely with responses, ”

Blue Chip surveyed 179 adults between February and April 2011 for the white paper Patient Recruitment and the E-Patient: A Survey Analysis.