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Research recruitment and retention: Strategy for success

More than 2,600 women and 600 children from areas of Louisiana most severely affected by the largest marine oil spill in history participate in the WaTCH (Women and Their Children’s Health) Study. Dr. Edward Trapido, associate dean for research at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center is the principal investigator.

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DHOS) released more than 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It affected, and continues to affect, the physical, mental, and community health of diverse populations, including Vietnamese, African-American, Latino, and indigenous communities.

The recruitment goal for the study’s prospective longitudinal cohort was 2,500 women. “Women...represent an influential yet vulnerable and understudied population. They are often central to decision-making processes within families and households, particularly with respect to decisions regarding health, support, diet, and child rearing; and they have remained relatively understudied with respect to the DHOS,” WaTCH researchers wrote in a recently published article, “Untangling the disaster-depression knot: The role of social ties after Deepwater Horizon.”

Messaging, materials, and a long-term strategy

WaTCH faced many challenges when it set out to examine the effects of the spill on its most vulnerable victims. HCC worked with the study team to conduct focus groups with local community members who helped us understand their concerns and priorities. Distrust of research was coupled with worry about the potential effects of study participation on their involvement with ongoing BP litigation. Many women mistakenly felt that because they considered themselves relatively unaffected by the spill, their participation had no value. A desire to help their communities provided motivation for them to consider participation, however.

Based on what we learned, HCC developed a communication strategy to support recruitment efforts through multiple channels: phone, door-to-door, local events, print materials, word of mouth, and online on the LSU website. From the outset we also addressed the importance of retaining participants over time. The strategy addressed the cohort’s unique barriers and drivers to participation. Key messages emphasized that WaTCH is a local project, conducted by a respected and trusted research center that cares about the community, and the only oil-spill study that focuses on children. Another important message was that the study valued and respected the time, privacy, and experiences of its participants.

HCC developed the WaTCH logo and recruitment materials. We also worked with the study’s communication specialist to develop an easy-to-use template for retention newsletters that keep participants engaged with updates on what is being learned, thus reinforcing the significance of their commitment.

A unique approach

Until now, very little research has studied the long-term health effects from oil spills and associated clean-up efforts, in particular to spills presenting ongoing exposure (e.g., through food consumption) and acute and long-term health risks. In addition to conducting a comprehensive investigation of the health effects associated with an oil spill (and disasters in general), WaTCH integrates traditional nutritional and molecular epidemiology with an emerging resilience and recovery construct.

The WaTCH study is a member of the Deepwater Horizon Research Consortium, a network of community and university partnerships funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), an institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).