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The power of observation in gathering patient insights

Mary Assimakopoulos, Founding Director of global pharma market research specialist Research Partnership discusses how pharma can benefit from improved patient understanding.
If you think of market research you probably think of the traditional interview, where the respondent is asked to answer a number of questions on a particular topic. However, we can also conduct research where the interviewer or moderator takes a much less active role, becoming more of an observer than a participant.    

This type of qualitative research, which is sometimes referred to as “uncontaminated”, because it removes any influence that the presence of a moderator may have, can lead to some very powerful patient insights.  This is especially relevant to some of the digital approaches now being used to collect information about people’s environments.    

Why are observational approaches becoming more relevant and appropriate in understanding patients?    

Across all generations, it seems we are becoming more open than ever before to sharing information about our daily lives and activities. Whether it’s via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or even reality TV, it is a growing social norm to allow people close access to our personal lives. At the same time, the dynamics of healthcare interactions are changing. Patients, in particular, are becoming more influenced by sources outside of the traditional HCP route and are using a variety of communication tools to share information and even seek out information about their health.  In response, the Industry is reaching out to support patients using a diverse mix of multi-media approaches and channels of communication.    

To observe patients in the past, market researchers may have considered conducting pure ethnographic research, where the moderator would live in the respondent’s home to watch them in their daily environment over a period of time. However, this is a very lengthy, time consuming and often impractical process for pharmaceutical marketers who need quick answers to their business questions. It is not always practical for respondents either- patients may have severe health-related limitations which would make this method very intrusive.    

So market researchers are adapting ethnographic approaches to capture some of the observational benefits that these more purist forms of behavioral studies deliver. For example, we recently conducted a multi-country research project for a rare eye disease. The core objective of the research was to understand the patient journey from presentation through to diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. In addition to conducting traditional face-to-face and telephone interviews, we also attended the homes of some of these patients in each country and took videos of them in their living environment. Patients walked us around their homes; sharing with us stories about life before and after their disease, adding significant layers of insight to the findings above and beyond the original objectives. The video reel output that complimented the report helped marketing understand the true impact the disease had on patients’ day to day activities and emotions - which in turn will help inform their strategy to improve early diagnosis and outcomes.    

We also recently used observational techniques as part of a study to understand why a range of nutritional products, which were highly popular in western markets, were not being adopted in Asia. Our moderators accompanied patients on their visits to pharmacies, supermarkets and alternative medicine stores and also observed them in their homes over several days, in order to get a much deeper understanding of the cultural differences in behavior east to west. The findings allowed the marketing team to better understand the buying habits and needs of Asian patients so that they could refine and repackage their product to resonate more effectively with this market.    

In some cases, where it is not feasible to observe in the real natural environment, we set up a situation to observe behavior, aiming to be a ‘fly on the wall’ and mimic the natural context as much as is practically possible. This is often used when recreating interactions between people.    

We recently used this technique to assess communication between HCPs and patients, in order to gauge utilization of a new tool to aid adherence. It was amazing to see how natural and automatic it was for both doctors and patients to forget they were part of a simulated consultation. The simulation was carefully managed to ensure no recommendations for treatment were given, but that overall it mimicked the real-life setting as much as possible. Afterwards,all respondents were interviewed by our moderators who would ask what ‘additional things’ they might have said or asked if it was a consult/appointment with a REAL patient or doctor. We found that respondents did feel that this environment was realistic. Common phrases we heard in the debrief were…. ‘that’s how I would say it in my clinic’  and ‘yes, I would have asked him that in that way, yes.’    

So for environments where it is not possible for us to be present, simulated consultations offer a very valuable approach to help get us closer to being that ‘fly on the wall’.     There are many other forms of observational research afforded to us with new technology. For example, we can use online research to observe conversations between patients. Mobile research can be used to understand true behavior such as adherence and handheld video cameras to capture how medical devices are actually being used in the healthcare environment.    

In our world where social norms and communication tools are changing, observational approaches can offer exciting new and different ways for us as market researchers to access our customers, and provide the healthcare industry with greater insights into the world of the patient.  

We are one of the largest independent healthcare market research and consulting agencies in the world. Trusted partner to the global pharmaceutical industry, we use our expertise and experience to deliver intelligent, tailor-made solutions. We provide strategic recommendations that go beyond research, helping our clients to answer their fundamental business challenges. Find out more at

8th July 2014


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