Kaifeng Wu

On Jan. 15, the Yale School of Medicine launched a poster and online campaign called “Help Us Discover Heroes,” which encourages the public to participate in clinical trials of treatment methods for various disorders.

The campaign, which resembles a similar 2012 initiative, features the stories of clinical-trial volunteers and current Yale researchers on the medical school’s website and on the sides of Yale shuttles. In announcing the campaign, Robert Alpern, dean of the medical school, spoke of the important role played by volunteers, as well as doctors, in furthering biomedical research. However, the campaign was inspired in part by the challenge many researchers face in the recruitment of new volunteers, he added.

“The biggest reason [for the noncompletion of trials] is low accrual, meaning that not enough people enrolled in the study to ensure meaningful results,” Alpern said. “There may be logistical issues that interfere with study visits, for example, or [participants] may not understand what the trial is testing and may decline to participate altogether.”

Alpern said he hopes the campaign, along with other recent measures taken by the medical school, would help to encourage the public to aid clinical trials, although he acknowledged that recruitment for trials is a national problem not specific to Yale.

The most common reasons deterring people from volunteering are lack of interest and time constraints, said Melinda Irwin, associate director of the Yale Cancer Center. She added that stiff eligibility criteria can sometimes be a factor in not receiving enough volunteers to complete a trial. She added that the eligibility criteria should not be excessively severe while still corresponding to the trial’s purpose.

Stuart Weinzimer, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who had a study recently featured by the campaign, said recruiting additional volunteers for trials often necessitates demystifying the process behind biomedical research for potential participants.

One challenge associated with clinical trials is recruiting people of color, given historical incidents in which members of minorities were treated unethically by study investigators, Weinzimer said. He added that for some people, participation in research can be associated with “frankly horrible” cultural histories.

“At least in the experience for diabetes, participation in clinical research trials is much higher in Caucasians than in minorities of color,” he said. “Some of that may be due to language barriers. And, in African-American populations, there’s an unfortunate history of abuses in this country about getting volunteers properly informed. Some of that holds over. Some people are worried that they are just guinea pigs.”

Weinzimer added that for those unfamiliar with biomedical research, the experience of seeing volunteers and investigators similar to oneself featured in the campaign will help encourage people to participate in clinical trials in the future.

However, if told that they have been chosen to be part of the control group for a clinical trial rather than part of the group testing the intervention, many volunteers choose not to participate, Irwin said. She emphasized that this was an unfortunate reason for people not to participate, since the control group faces minimal impact on their lives when compared to the experimental group.

Irwin welcomed the “Help Us Discover Heroes” campaign as a way to educate people and patients about the benefits that the biomedical research performed in trials can bring to the broader population.

“With research, we need people to participate to change standard-of-care practice,” she said. “With changes in health care and the Affordable Care Act, we can also find ways to cut costs but have equally or more effective treatment. There is a benefit to everyone.”

Tesheia Johnson, deputy director and chief operating officer of the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, said the medical school has also launched the campaign via the first of a series of videos on YouTube and social media.

“Our hope is that by formalizing the effort to share more personal stories [the campaign] will have a greater impact,” she said.

The Yale Center for Clinical Investigation was founded in 2005.