Factors that impact on recruitment to randomised trials in health care: a qualitative evidence synthesis (Review)

Catherine Houghton* (Corresponding Author), Maura Dowling, Pauline Meskell, Andrew Hunter, Heidi Gardner, Aislinn Conway, Shaun Treweek, Katy Sutcliffe, Jane Noyes, Declan Devane, Jane R Nicholas, Linda M Biesty

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
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Randomised trials (also referred to as ‘randomised controlled trials’ or ‘trials’) are the optimal way to minimise bias in evaluating the effects of competing treatments, therapies and innovations in health care. It is important to achieve the required sample size for a trial, otherwise trialists may not be able to draw conclusive results leading to research waste and raising ethical questions about trial participation. The reasons why potential participants may accept or decline participation are multifaceted. Yet, the evidence of effectiveness of interventions to improve recruitment to trials is not substantial and fails to recognise these individual decision‐making processes. It is important to synthesise the experiences and perceptions of those invited to participate in randomised trials to better inform recruitment strategies.

To explore potential trial participants’ views and experiences of the recruitment process for participation. The specific objectives are to describe potential participants’ perceptions and experiences of accepting or declining to participate in trials, to explore barriers and facilitators to trial participation, and to explore to what extent barriers and facilitators identified are addressed by strategies to improve recruitment evaluated in previous reviews of the effects of interventions including a Cochrane Methodology Review.

Search methods
We searched the Cochrane Library, Medline, Embase, CINAHL, Epistemonikos, LILACS, PsycINFO, ORRCA, and grey literature sources. We ran the most recent set of searches for which the results were incorporated into the review in July 2017.

Selection criteria:
We included qualitative and mixed‐methods studies (with an identifiable qualitative component) that explored potential trial participants’ experiences and perceptions of being invited to participate in a trial. We excluded studies that focused only on recruiters’ perspectives, and trials solely involving children under 18 years, or adults who were assessed as having impaired mental capacity.

Data collection and analysis:
Five review authors independently assessed the titles, abstracts and full texts identified by the search. We used the CART (completeness, accuracy, relevance, timeliness) criteria to exclude studies that had limited focus on the phenomenon of interest. We used QSR NVivo to extract and manage the data. We assessed methodological limitations using the Critical Skills Appraisal Programme (CASP) tool. We used thematic synthesis to analyse and synthesise the evidence. This provided analytical themes and a conceptual model. We used the GRADE‐CERQual (Confidence in the Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative research) approach to assess our confidence in each finding. Our findings were integrated with two previous intervention effectiveness reviews by juxtaposing the quantitative and qualitative findings in a matrix.

Main results
We included 29 studies (published in 30 papers) in our synthesis. Twenty‐two key findings were produced under three broad themes (with six subthemes) to capture the experience of being invited to participate in a trial and making the decision whether to participate. Most of these findings had moderate to high confidence. We identified factors from the trial itself that influenced participation. These included how trial information was communicated, and elements of the trial such as the time commitment that might be considered burdensome. The second theme related to personal factors such as how other people can influence the individual’s decision; and how a personal understanding of potential harms and benefits could impact on the decision. Finally, the potential benefits of participation were found to be key to the decision to participate, namely personal benefits such as access to new treatments, but also the chance to make a difference and help others. The conceptual model we developed presents the decision‐making process as a gauge and the factors that influence whether the person will, or will not, take part.

Authors' conclusions
This qualitative evidence synthesis has provided comprehensive insight into the complexity of factors that influence a person's decision whether to participate in a trial. We developed key questions that trialists can ask when developing their recruitment strategy. In addition, our conceptual model emphasises the need for participant‐centred approaches to recruitment. We demonstrated moderate to high level confidence in our findings, which in some way can be attributed to the large volume of highly relevant studies in this field. We recommend that these insights be used to direct or influence or underpin future recruitment strategies that are developed in a participant‐driven way that ultimately improves trial conduct and reduces research waste.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages75
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2020


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