Background: Online technology is a promising resource for conducting clinical research. While the internet may improve a study's reach, as well as the efficiency of data collection, it may also introduce a number of challenges for participants and investigators. The objective of this research was to determine the challenges that potential participants faced during the enrollment phase of a randomized controlled intervention trial of Stepping Up to Health, an internet-mediated walking program that utilized a multi-step online enrollment process.
Methods: We conducted a quantitative content analysis of 623 help tickets logged in a participant management database during the enrollment phase of a clinical trial investigating the effect of an automated internet-mediated walking intervention. Qualitative coding was performed by two trained coders, and 10% of the sample was coded by both coders to determine inter-coder reliability. Quantitative analyses included standard descriptive statistics on ticket characteristics and theme frequency, and a Poisson regression analysis identified characteristics of potential participants who reported more frequent problems during enrollment.
Results: In total, 880 potential participants visited the study website and 80% completed the enrollment screening. Of the potential participants who visited the study website, 38% had help tickets logged in the participant management database. The total number of help tickets associated with individual potential participants ranged from 0 to 7 (M = .71). Overall, 46% of help tickets were initiated by email and 54% were initiated by phone. The most common help ticket theme was issues related to the study process (48%). The next most prominent theme was discussion related to obtaining medical clearance (34%), followed by issues related to pedometers and uploading (31%). Older individuals, women, and those with lower self-rated internet ability were more likely to report problems during the enrollment process.
Conclusion: Prospective participants in an online clinical trial encountered a number of barriers to enrollment that led them to request help from study staff. Questions about the complex enrollment process itself were common. In a complex multi-step enrollment process, providing personalized feedback to potential participants indicating their status within the enrollment process may be beneficial.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00729040.