Background: Research participation is beneficial to patients, clinicians and healthcare services. There is currently poor alignment between UK clinical research activity and local prevalence of disease. The National Institute of Health Research is keen to encourage chief investigators (CIs) to base their research activity in areas of high patient need, to support equity, efficiency and capacity building. We explored how CIs choose sites for their trials and suggest ways to encourage them to recruit from areas with the heaviest burden of disease. Methods: Qualitative, semi-structured telephone interviews with a purposive sample of 30 CIs of ongoing or recently completed multi-centre trials, all of which were funded by the UK National Institute of Health Research. Results: CIs want to deliver world-class trials to time and budget. Approaching newer, less research-active sites appears risky, potentially compromising trial success. CIs fear that funders may close the trial if recruitment (or retention) is low, with potential damage to their research reputation. We consider what might support a shift in CI behaviour. The availability of ‘heat maps’ showing the disparity between disease prevalence and current research activity will help to inform site selection. Embedded qualitative research during trial set up and early, appropriate patient and public involvement and engagement can provide useful insights for a more nuanced and inclusive approach to recruitment. Public sector funders could request more granularity in recruitment reports and incentivise research activity in areas of greater patient need. Accounts from the few CIs who had ‘broken the mould’ suggest that nurturing new sites can be very successful in terms of efficient recruitment and retention. Conclusion: While improvements in equity and capacity building certainly matter to CIs, most are primarily motivated by their commitment to delivering successful trials. Highlighting the benefits to trial delivery is therefore likely to be the best way to encourage CIs to focus their research activity in areas of greatest need.
BMC Medical Research Methodology