After a short break from market research due to maternity leave, I was very excited to attend EphMRA this year to hear all about the latest news in the healthcare market research space.

The conference was held virtually for potentially the final time before being in-person next year; so, come 12pm Monday 21st June, I undertook the familiar process that we all know by now – get a cup of tea ready, put on my headset, and jump onto zoom.

Whilst it was a shame not to have the in-person experience, the conference continued to be well-organised and full of information. Whilst my poor colleagues have received my extremely in-depth notes, for brevity purposes I have summarised the 3 main themes, that, for me, stood out during the event.


Behavioural Science

Behavioural science continues to be a topic of great interest. As an example, the opening speaker, Dr Nick Southgate (Behavioural Economist) gave a fascinating talk showing that the role of emotion in market research is often too prioritised and that trying to “find emotional hooks” in HCP research isn’t always the best strategy.

Armed with lots of evidence, Dr Southgate proceeded to outline how Doctors are in a double bind vs most other professions in that patients want their doctors to be compassionate and open, yet at the same time authoritative. However, Doctors see so many patients that they simply can’t approach every patient as if they’re the most important patient in the world. Simply put, emotional labour is too psychologically costly, and HCPs have learnt to close their emotions in order to be professionally available.

In market research, we often seek to find out how to get to the heart of the emotions. But Dr Southgate argues this can backfire. If we ask questions such as “why did you become a doctor”, the answers will be too guarded to be useful. So, if we can’t do it this way, what should we ask respondents? A much better method is to borrow a distanced therapeutic approach, for example, “thinking back to the first time when doing this, how did you feel about it then vs now”? This gives them permission to admit to feeling uncertainty. Ultimately, we need to identify the pattern of the management of the emotion, not the emotion itself. Interesting stuff!


Importance of Inclusivity in Recruitment

Another key area of interest was the importance of inclusivity in recruitment specifically with regards to capturing the full, diverse patient voice. There was a thought-provoking Panel run by patient advocacy groups and specialist recruiters about what we need to do to be more inclusive, and why. The consensus was that a combined approach would be best, which encompasses patient advocacy groups, traditional approaches such as in-country project managers, and digital recruitment through online marketing campaigns. Incentives, too, should be fair and appropriate so as not to alienate people from poorer backgrounds.

And not only is this rewarding for participants, but it makes excellent business sense too! For example, it is a sad fact that black and ethnic minority communities are less likely to take part in clinical trials and market research generally. Yet they are more likely to be affected by type 2 diabetes, for example! Overall, this topic came up repeatedly throughout the 3-day event and there was strong agreement amongst all recruiters, agencies, and pharmaceutical clients that more is needed to be done in this space.


Digital Ethnography

As always, patient research and innovative methodologies were prominent throughout the event. In particular, digital ethnography stood out to me as the third main topic. It is probably to be expected, given the context of the last couple of years. Agencies have needed to be extra creative in order to continue to access true patient insights.

Ethnographic research, as we know, is hugely revealing into the day to day lives of people who experience a certain condition(s); however, almost overnight the ability to conduct traditional ethnography was denied due to social distancing. But fear not because agencies were able to adapt quickly to a more digital approach and, as the numerous papers on this topic showed, there were lots of benefits!

Presenters from the various agencies showed that ethnography can indeed be conducted digitally, with careful management. For example, recommendations aligned in that a small sample is best, and that each patient should have one key person with whom they interact (for moderation, project management etc). With too many people involved, trust is lost. Engagement should be maintained throughout with various tasks and touchpoints, and patient-patient interaction is important.

Of course, in-person ethnography is still the gold-standard and digital can’t quite yet replace the benefits of face-to-face interactions. Now that in-home visits are becoming more feasible, a mixed-approach of digital vs in-person might be considered in order to get the best of both worlds!

As you can see, the conference uncovered a wealth of insights and information of which I have only scratched the surface! Other popular topics were around the validity of AI methodologies and employee retention post-covid, but I expect next year will be even more focused on these as the post-pandemic world continues to adjust to one which is more flexible, digital, and technological.


By Lucy Saunders

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