Background: The growing use of newer communication and Internet technologies, even among low-income and transient populations, require research staff to update their outreach strategies to ensure high follow-up and participant retention rates. This paper presents the views of research assistants on the use of cell phones and the Internet to track participants in a multisite randomized trial of substance use disorder treatment.
Methods: Preinterview questionnaires exploring tracking and other study-related activities were collected from 21 research staff across the 10 participating US sites. Data were then used to construct a semistructured interview guide that, in turn, was used to interview 12 of the same staff members. The questionnaires and interview data were entered in Atlas.ti and analyzed for emergent themes related to the use of technology for participant-tracking purposes.
Results: Study staff reported that most participants had cell phones, despite having unstable physical addresses and landlines. The incoming call feature of most cell phones was useful for participants and research staff alike, and texting proved to have additional benefits. However, reliance on participants' cell phones also proved problematic. Even homeless participants were found to have access to the Internet through public libraries and could respond to study staff e-mails. Some study sites opened generic social media accounts, through which study staff sent private messages to participants. However, the institutional review board (IRB) approval process for tracking participants using social media at some sites was prohibitively lengthy. Internet searches through Google, national paid databases, obituaries, and judiciary Web sites were also helpful tools.
Conclusions: Research staff perceive that cell phones, Internet searches, and social networking sites were effective tools to achieve high follow-up rates in drug abuse research. Studies should incorporate cell phone, texting, and social network Web site information on locator forms; obtain IRB approval for contacting participants using social networking Web sites; and include Web searches, texting, and the use of social media in staff training as standard operating procedures.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01104805.
Keywords: Clinical trials; participant tracking; social media; technology; texting.