Resources for researchers

Recruiting healthy controls for biobanking research

Blood samples and tumor specimens collected in the gastrointestinal (GI) cancer biobank at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) allow physician-scientists to look at molecular and genetic changes that may signal a risk factor for particular cancers. This makes biobank specimens a critical resource for research into the process by which normal cells become cancer cells, and understanding that process makes it possible to develop new drugs that can delay or prevent these cancerous changes.

Biobank leadership called on the Health Communication Core to help increase the number of healthy control participants. “Healthy controls” are the spouses and friends of DFCI GI oncology patients—people who are not genetically related to the patient, but who are likely to share similar behaviors and environments.

Understanding audience motivations and barriers

For this project, potential healthy controls included both men and women of diverse ages. Research coordinators reported that spouses and friends volunteer as healthy controls because it provides them with something concrete they can do to help at a time when they may feel helpless. Providing a blood sample may provide a way of sharing, in a small way, the cancer patient’s experience. Contributing to research that may help their loved one, or other people, is also a frequent motivator.

One of the challenges the program faced in recruiting healthy controls was the common misperception that “gastrointestinal cancer” is limited to the stomach, when in fact it includes the whole GI tract. Because of this, spouses and friends of colorectal, pancreatic, and other cancers assumed they were not eligible. Some potential participants also expressed concern about confidentiality.

Strategic solution

To attract the attention of potential participants, HCC developed a large, full-color card that could be available as a takeaway in waiting areas and infusion rooms, be included in new patient packets, or be provided by oncologists during clinical visits.

Download a PDF of the card

The content and design of the card focus on conveying a few key points:

  • By participating, you are helping people with GI cancer
  • In the wake of this upsetting diagnosis, participating is a concrete thing you can do
  • Participation consists simply of a one-time visit that will only be about 30 minutes
  • Your information will be protected and kept confidential

The voice/tone of the card is friendly, direct, and simple, offering clear information on how to participate.  A photograph illustrates the supporting, caring relationship between patient and the spouse or friend. Specific types of GI cancer are highlighted, as is the convenience of participating. A call to action—“Contact us”—indicates the next step.

A successful recruitment strategy depends on understanding your audience, being clear about what you want them to do, appealing to their motivations, addressing their barriers, and reaching out to them in settings where they are most likely to be engaged.