Expanding the Reach of Research: Quantitative Evaluation of a Web-Based Approach for Remote Recruitment of People Who Hear Voices

JMIR Form Res. 2021 Jun 3;5(6):e23118. doi: 10.2196/23118.


Background: Similar to other populations with highly stigmatized medical or psychiatric conditions, people who hear voices (ie, experience auditory verbal hallucinations [AVH]) are often difficult to identify and reach for research. Technology-assisted remote research strategies reduce barriers to research recruitment; however, few studies have reported on the efficiency and effectiveness of these approaches.

Objective: This study introduces and evaluates the efficacy of technology-assisted remote research designed for people who experience AVH.

Methods: Our group developed an integrated, automated and human complementary web-based recruitment and enrollment apparatus that incorporated Google Ads, web-based screening, identification verification, hybrid automation, and interaction with live staff. We examined the efficacy of that apparatus by examining the number of web-based advertisement impressions (ie, number of times the web-based advertisement was viewed); clicks on that advertisement; engagement with web-based research materials; and the extent to which it succeeded in representing a broad sample of individuals with AVH, assessed through the self-reported AVH symptom severity and demographic representativeness (relative to the US population) of the sample recruited.

Results: Over an 18-month period, our Google Ads advertisement was viewed 872,496 times and clicked on 11,183 times. A total amount of US $4429.25 was spent on Google Ads, resulting in 772 individuals who experience AVH providing consent to participate in an entirely remote research study (US $0.40 per click on the advertisement and US $5.73 per consented participant) after verifying their phone number, passing a competency screening questionnaire, and providing consent. These participants reported high levels of AVH frequency (666/756, 88.1% daily or more), distress (689/755, 91.3%), and functional interference (697/755, 92.4%). They also represented a broad sample of diversity that mirrored the US population demographics. Approximately one-third (264/756, 34.9%) of the participants had never received treatment for their AVH and, therefore, were unlikely to be identified via traditional clinic-based research recruitment strategies.

Conclusions: Web-based procedures allow for time saving, cost-efficient, and representative recruitment of individuals with AVH and can serve as a model for future studies focusing on hard-to-reach populations.

Keywords: digital health; mobile phone; recruitment; research procedures.