Background: Recruitment and retention of patients and healthcare providers in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) is important in order to determine the effectiveness of interventions. However, failure to achieve recruitment targets is common and reasons why a particular recruitment strategy works for one study and not another remain unclear. We sought to describe a strategy used in a multicentre RCT in primary care, to report researchers' and participants' experiences of its implementation and to inform future strategies to maximise recruitment and retention.
Methods: In total 48 general practices and 903 patients were recruited from three different areas of Ireland to a RCT of an intervention designed to optimise secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. The recruitment process involved telephoning practices, posting information, visiting practices, identifying potential participants, posting invitations and obtaining consent. Retention involved patients attending reviews and responding to questionnaires and practices facilitating data collection.
Results: We achieved high retention rates for practices (100%) and for patients (85%) over an 18-month intervention period. Pilot work, knowledge of the setting, awareness of change in staff and organisation amongst participant sites, rapid responses to queries and acknowledgement of practitioners' contributions were identified as being important. Minor variations in protocol and research support helped to meet varied, complex and changing individual needs of practitioners and patients and encouraged retention in the trial. A collaborative relationship between researcher and practice staff which required time to develop was perceived as vital for both recruitment and retention.
Conclusion: Recruiting and retaining the numbers of practices and patients estimated as required to provide findings with adequate power contributes to increased confidence in the validity and generalisability of RCT results. A continuous dynamic process of monitoring progress within trials and tailoring strategies to particular circumstances, whilst not compromising trial protocols, should allow maximal recruitment and retention.
Trial registration: ISRCTN24081411.