Embedding qualitative research in randomised controlled trials to improve recruitment: findings from two recruitment optimisation studies of orthopaedic surgical trials

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Background: Recruitment of patients is one of the main challenges when designing and conducting randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Trials of rare injuries, or those that include surgical interventions pose added challenges due to the small number of potentially eligible patients and issues with patient preferences and surgeon equipoise. We explore key issues to consider when recruiting to orthopaedic surgical trials from the perspective of staff and patients with the aim of informing the development ofstrategies to improve recruitment in future research.
Design: Two qualitative process evaluations of a United Kingdom-wide orthopaedic surgical RCT (ACTIVE) and mixed methods randomised feasibility study (PRESTO). Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted and data was analysed thematically.
Setting: NHS secondary care organisations throughout the United Kingdom. Interviewswere undertaken via telephone.
Participants: 37 health professionals including UK based spinal and orthopaedic
surgeons and individuals involved in recruitment to the ACTIVE and PRESTO studies (e.g. research nurses, surgeons, physiotherapists). 22 patients including patients who agreed to participate in the ACTIVE and PRESTO studies (n=15) and patients that declined participation in the ACTIVE study (n=7) were interviewed.
Results: We used a mixed methods systematic review of recruiting patients to
randomised controlled trials as a framework for reporting and analysing our findings. Our findings mapped onto those identified in the systematic review and highlighted the importance of equipoise, randomisation, communication, patient’s circumstances, altruism and trust in clinical and research teams. Our findings also emphasised the importance of considering how eligibility criteria are operationalised and the impact of complex patient pathways when recruiting to surgical trials. In particular, the influence of health professionals, who are not involved in trial recruitment, on patients’ treatment preferences by suggesting they would receive a certain treatment ahead of recruitment consultations should not be underestimated.
Conclusions: A wealth of evidence exploring factors affecting recruitment to
randomised controlled trials exists. A methodological shift is now required to ensure that this evidence is used by all those involved in recruitment and to ensure that existing knowledge is translated into methods for optimising recruitment to future trials.
Trial registries: ACTIVE: (ISRCTN98152560) PRESTO: (ISRCTN12094890)
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jul 2021

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