Sensitive Research

As a market researcher, your participant's well-being is always paramount. Despite working in a seemingly pragmatic sector, medical device research can often garner a highly emotional response, from what you assumed was a straight forward question. Research Manager, Amy Heaslip discusses a few of the ways we ensure the research is effective, balancing our client's needs with those of the participant's.

Certain research areas are considered ‘obviously’ sensitive. Take for example issues concerning bereavement, crime and violence, terminal illness, sexual health, to name but a few.

When it comes to medical devices research, CMR’s area of specialty, there is often an assumption that the fieldwork experience, from a participant’s and researcher’s perspective, will be mostly pragmatic, both in its approach and issues covered. To an extent, this is true. Device research has the tendency to be very precise and detail-orientated, as the underlying goal is to understand which device features and handling elements work well or less well, and what needs to be changed to facilitate easier device handling. However, let’s not lose sight of the fundamental fact that we are all social and emotional beings.  As humans, all interactions have a social and emotional dynamic, whether conscious or subconscious, which influence the way we engage with people, services and products, including medical devices.

A novel experience

For many, participation in qualitative research is a new experience. Whilst it is likely that they have talked at length about their life, condition and therapy with their HCP, loved one or friend, it is much less likely that they will have had the opportunity to talk in depth about these things with someone they’ve never met before and will never see again. With this in mind, despite not anticipating emotionally-fuelled responses when medical devices are the topic at hand, every so often a respondent takes you (and often themselves) by surprise.

Reflecting on the past

During an in-depth interview or focus group, deep emotional reactions can be triggered because the discussion either turns to, or is underpinned by, thoughts of the time when they were first diagnosed, and the struggles associated with therapy management in the early days. Beyond that, there can be on-going, present-day frustrations; in the diabetes space for instance, the clinical, emotional and psychological struggles that some people experience often come to the fore. As an example, where diabetes is concerned, we often hear about battling with night-time hypos, the social awkwardness of injecting in public, feeling restricted by carb counting and more.

CMR’s approach

At CMR, with years of experience in the medical industry, we are well-versed in tactfully managing emotionally-fuelled projects and whilst most of the following considerations apply to all research, they are of the utmost importance in potentially sensitive sessions. It all begins with various pre-research decisions and careful shaping of the session to come. First and foremost, we ensure that the participants are emotionally ‘bought in’ to the research and see it as an opportunity to inform product development in a way that may be beneficial, both to them and others in the future. Then there’s the venue selection and the creation of a welcoming environment through smaller touches, such as providing refreshments and the seating arrangement.

Once the research is underway, the approach is less a case of planning and more a case of being attentive to what you can see and hear, and reacting accordingly. Verbal and or non-verbal cues are interpreted and used to guide the pace of the interview. They help us to know when we can probe for more information and equally when we need to ease-off and give the respondent more time to think, or even time to take a break.  From our side, we are also very aware of the messages we convey. The language, tone and gestures we use are free from judgement, we avoid labelling someone as their condition and we take reflect the terminology that the participant uses when talking about their condition.  With regard to the line of questioning, the moderator should only pose questions that are of relevance to the study, in order that its value and purpose is reiterated, which in turn makes for a more effective interview or focus group. Ultimately, providing that emotions are handled in the right way, they can be harnessed to generate insightful data that often gives the rationale behind, or provides context to, some of the thoughts relating to device features and functionalities.

Finally, the act of bringing the discussion to a close needs to be done gradually, particularly where the session has stirred emotions. This approach helps us to leave participants in the same or a better emotional/psychological state than they were in, at the start. Whilst it’s not our role to offer advice, it’s often handy to be equipped with links to useful sites, should we feel that a little signposting may be needed and or welcomed.

In conclusion, medical devices research can bring a whole host of emotions with it. With years of experience under our belts, there are a number of steps that we take at CMR in order to manage these emotions, ensuring that the outcomes of the research are as effective as they can be, without compromising on the emotional/psychological state of the participant.

Author: Amy Heaslip, Research Manager