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4 ways mobile ethnography studies can elevate your patient insights

How can we achieve more real-life, in-the-moment insights from different groups to understand their thoughts and behaviours? This is where ethnography studies come in.

When people think of qualitative research, they normally refer to interviews and focus groups. These techniques can be extremely effective, but they require pre-planned and organised conversations. So, how can we achieve more real-life, in-the-moment insights from different groups to understand their thoughts and behaviours? This is where ethnography studies come in.

So, what is an ethnography study?

An ethnography study is a research method that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organisation to observe their behaviour and interactions up close. This technique has been used for many years now. Originally, it would involve a researcher living in an unknown group or tribe for a set period of time, in order to engage in their culture and gain a more holistic understanding of that group — what is their life really like? How do they survive? What are their struggles and needs on a day-to-day basis? However, you can imagine this technique is time-consuming and costly.

The good news is that nowadays, we can conduct effective ethnography studies online through designated platforms — we call this mobile ethnography.

You are able to observe the participant’s life through the lens of their mobile phone and become fully absorbed in the behaviours and thoughts of that chosen population. Mobile ethnography allows you to gain the same benefits of long-term face-to-face observations, but from the comfort of the patient’s own home.

Not only this, but you are also able to gain valuable patient insights in a more efficient and cost-effective way. Below are a few techniques and tasks that can be carried out in a digital setting:

  • Video diary
  • Polls / questions
  • Photo uploads
  • Vlog-style video
  • Interviews
  • Scrapbooks
  • Vox pop (a short video made up of clips taken from interviews with members of the public)
  • Unplanned interactions between participants

How can ethnography be applied to clinical trials?

Mobile ethnography can show us what people actually do or think, rather than what they report, for example, when in an interview situation or in a doctor’s appointment. It allows for unfiltered and natural conversations as you’re observing them in their natural setting, meaning you remove the bias of unnatural clinical environments.

Patient insights in all aspects of healthcare is essential, we already know that. But generating these insights can come with challenges. The nature of conversations are often more focussed on a patient’s physical symptoms rather than the knock-on effect of their condition that affects other aspects of their life. However, the flexibility of mobile ethnography can help to reduce these challenges.

It is now considered a ‘must-have’ tool for collecting in-depth patient research and guiding informed decision making.

So, how can mobile ethnography elevate your patient insights?

#1 It provides valuable context

Context is crucial in clinical trials, particularly when considering patients. How can we understand what the patient is really dealing with, without knowing how they behave and interact? Mobile ethnography allows you to do just that. You’re able to experience their day-to-day challenges with them in real time, rather than retrospectively like in interviews. This will help better inform your decision making and generate richer insights.

Imagine a clinical trial that has a high drop-out rate — mobile ethnography can be used to better understand why there’s a lack of engagement with the trial. This method is able to capture the patient challenges and determine how best to encourage retention throughout the trial.

Ideally a mobile ethnography project would take place before clinical trial recruitment, to allow site staff to plan an optimal recruitment strategy from the get-go, saving money in the long run.

#2 It can be used to understand the user experience

Ethnography has more recently been a successful method used in understanding MedTech product design, as well as in customer experience and engagement design. This method allows you to see how patients use and engage with medical products, and gather their thoughts on how well it could add value to their lives. After all, it’s the patients that will be using these products — understanding what a patient wants from a medical device is incredibly valuable.

For example, a piece of research by McKinsey found that MedTech companies that invest in user research and design capabilities — of which ethnography was a fundamental component — increased their revenues and total shareholder returns substantially faster than their industry counterparts did over a five-year period. It’s never been clearer that investing in gaining a deeper understanding of your end-user is key.

The needs and mindsets of caregivers and family members can also be explored through ethnographic studies, providing a crucial understanding of those responsible for overseeing or prescribing the use of a product.

#3 It’s cost-effective

Sending a researcher to live with a specific patient group to observe a day in the life, in most circumstances, is unfeasible. As a result, research into the patient experience with certain illnesses or medications lacks real-world validity, and the industry ends up making assumptions about their condition and the implications of using specific drugs. Patients within a mobile ethnography group are able to capture and diarise their experiences while using a new drug or taking part in a clinical trial over an extended period of time.

#4 It’s accessible

We spend a significant amount of our day on mobile devices, and with 97% of American adults owning a mobile phone, and 85% of Americans owning a smartphone, mobile ethnography projects are almost second nature for participants to take part in. These projects take place on designated platforms which follow a similar layout to popular social media pages, or they can be hosted directly in private groups on social media, such as in Facebook or WhatsApp groups. This means that not only is an ethnography study easy for people to take part in, but it’s also easy for you to set up too.


Let’s improve patient experience with the right patient insights

It’s time to stop assuming that we know what patients want or need, and start developing a deeper understanding from the patient’s point of view. Once we shift our focus to the patient mindset, we can start to improve the clinical experience for all. Mobile ethnography is a great place to start with this.

This blog was published here.

28th June 2021

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