July 2, 2012

Tapping Social Networks a Successful Strategy to Encourage Referrals for Free Cancer Screening Programs

Highlights

  • Tapping social networks may be a successful strategy to encourage referrals for free cancer screening programs
  • Programs may be able to leverage participant goodwill to get referrals of underinsured people who would benefit from the free services
  • Asking people to refer others without any additional financial incentive yielded as many scheduled appointments as did a financial incentive

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Brian Southwell
Brian Southwell

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C.—Simply asking people to nominate friends and family members appears to be a good way to find uninsured or underinsured participants for subsidized health screening services, according to a new study by researchers at RTI International, Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota.

The study, published in the July/August issue of American Journal of Health Promotion, looked at the effectiveness of using financial incentives to promote peer referrals for a free mammography program for underinsured women.

The results showed that financial incentives may not be needed; the programs may be able to leverage participant goodwill to get referrals of underinsured people who would benefit from the free services.

The study included almost 3,000 participants from a free mammography program in Minnesota. The participants were divided into three groups: one offered a $20 incentive each time someone they referred was screened, one offered $5 for each name and valid address or phone number they provided (regardless of screening completion), and one offered no financial incentive for referrals.

The study found that while financial incentives boosted the number of referrals received, simply asking people to refer others without any additional financial incentive actually yielded as many scheduled appointments.

"Identifying and communicating with desired audiences can be one of the most challenging aspects of screening underinsured women for breast cancer," said Brian Southwell, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at RTI International and the paper's lead author. "Various viral marketing and peer referral invitation methods, with and without financial incentives, appear to yield names of people who might be eligible for such services."

The researchers found that offering financial incentives did increase the likelihood of referral and the number of names submitted; however, it also may have increased pressure to submit names of people less likely to get screened. Offering no incentive led to fewer referrals than did offering money, but those referrals were more likely to lead to a scheduled screening.