Background: Recruitment to trials is complex and often protracted; selection bias may compromise generalisability. In the mental health field (as elsewhere), diverse factors have been described as hindering researcher access to potential participants and various strategies have been proposed to overcome barriers. However, the extent to which various influences identified in the literature are operational across mental health settings in England has not been systematically examined.
Methods: A cross-sectional, online survey of clinical studies officers employed by the Mental Health Research Network in England to recruit to trials from National Health Service mental health services. The bespoke questionnaire invited participants to report exposure to specified influences on recruitment, the perceived impact of these on access to potential participants, and to describe additional positive or negative influences on recruitment. Analysis employed descriptive statistics, the framework approach and triangulation of data.
Results: Questionnaires were returned by 98 (58%) of 170 clinical studies officers who reported diverse experience. Data demonstrated a disjunction between policy and practice. While the particulars of trial design and various marketing and communication strategies could influence recruitment, consensus was that the culture of NHS mental health services is not conducive to research. Since financial rewards for recruitment paid to Trusts and feedback about studies seldom reaching frontline services, clinicians were described as distanced from research. Facing continual service change and demanding clinical workloads, clinicians generally did not prioritise recruitment activities. Incentives to trial participants had variable impact on access but recruitment could be enhanced by engagement of senior investigators and integrating referral with routine practice. Comprehensive, robust feasibility studies and reciprocity between researchers and clinicians were considered crucial to successful recruitment.
Conclusions: In the mental health context, researcher access to potential trial participants is multiply influenced. Gatekeeping clinicians are faced with competing priorities and resources constrain research activity. It seems that environmental adjustment predicated on equitable resource allocation is needed if clinicians in NHS mental health services are to fully support the conduct of randomised controlled trials. Whilst cultural transformation, requiring changes in assumptions and values, is complex, our findings suggest that attention to practical matters can support this and highlight issues requiring careful consideration.