SMI Health Media

As seen in The Philadelphia Business Journal

The Philadelphia region is emerging as a hub for an evolving cottage industry spawned to help drug developers with the increasingly arduous challenge of recruiting volunteers for clinical studies. At least a half-dozen firms in the area specialize in finding people willing to be test subjects for experimental treatments and medical devices.

Such companies have set up shop here because of the large concentration of clients — from Big Pharma companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Merck to established biotech companies like Cephalon and Centocor to dozens of emerging life sciences firms — in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Horsham-based Acurian Inc., an early player in the patient recruitment business, has shifted strategies from its original vision. “When Acurian was founded in 1999, the idea was the company would use the Internet to play matchmaker between the clinical trial investigators, the pharmaceutical companies and the patients,” said Rick Malcolm, Acurian’s CEO.Malcolm, who wasn’t around in the company’s early days, said the concept didn’t work. “We may have been too early,” he said. Acurian shifted its focus to assembling a vast database of 50 million individuals who are potential candidates for clinical trials. Malcolm said the people in the database have filled out a survey or used some other mechanisms to state they would consider taking part in testing new drug products. Acurian mines its databases to develop a list of people that match the criteria needed for a drug study, then send them a letter advising them of the opportunity to participate in the clinical trial. “It isn’t as much a solicitation as it is a notification,” he said. “It’s pretty low key.” Last year, it sent out 10 million pieces of mail that led to screening of more than 600,000 potential clinical trial volunteers. Malcolm said “a lot” of the people they screen don’t qualify because the clinical trials have many exclusions built in. “One of my frustrations is there is an awful lot of people willing to be in a trial, but they don’t fit,” he said.

MediciGlobal in King of Prussia has been helping to recruit patients for clinical trials since 1992. Liz Moench, the company’s founder, president and CEO, said when they first got started a lot of what they did was “rescue” work — saving clinical trials that were in danger of failing because not enough patients were enrolled by the doctors or CROs leading the study. “Today the drug companies are being more proactive and hiring us at the start,” Moench said. MediciGlobal’s patient recruitment efforts range from using coupon-style advertising to catching people’s attention to tapping into Web-based social networks that link people with the same diseases or disorders. “Recruiting patients for clinical trials is all about building awareness, creating a call to action,” Moench said. “You have a short opportunity to get them enrolled.” One of MediciGlobal’s latest initiatives is to “take all recruitment effort to the local level.” That means, she said, taking into account cultural as well as language differences when preparing marketing materials used to recruit volunteers for studies. A recent spina bifida study resulted in preparing materials in 27 different languages for patients recruited from 18 countries.

Frank Kilpatrick, president of The Health Care Communications Group, a consulting company based in Los Angeles with offices in Center City, provides patient recruitment services primarily out of its Philadelphia office. “Our model is to undertake whatever outreach will be the most effective,” he said. Kilpatrick said studies have found 5 percent to 6 percent of the population is willing to participate in a clinical trial — but only a small subset of those have a medical condition that would, potentially, qualify them for a clinical trial. To reach the people in those subsets, he said, HSG employs a mix of traditional newspaper, television and radio advertising along with the Internet and community outreach initiatives — such as talking with people in homeless shelters about new mental illness drugs being tested. “The Internet has made it easier to reach people with specific conditions who are actively seeking treatment information,” Kilpatrick said. “It can also be a problem because people can get a lot of medical information — some of it’s true and some is more questionable.”

The newest company to enter the patient recruitment business is SMI, a point-of-care marketing company that launched SMI Clinical Trials this summer. SMI of King of Prussia has developed a working relationship with a network of 400,000 physicians at 250,000 health-care facilities. Pharmaceutical companies hire SMI to build brand awareness for drug products through promotional materials placed in doctors’ offices. The clinical trials division is tapping into that same physician network and developing marketing materials to find study volunteers. Steve Delozier, SMI’s president, said the new division is working primarily with CROs that have struggled to recruit patients through traditional media advertising. “You need to be in a place where people are more receptive to health information,” Delozier said. “Patients trust medical information they find in their physicians’ office more than anywhere else.”

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