Gaining clinical insight with physician interviews

Editor’s note: Joseph Kalinowski is founding principal of Trilogy Associates, a Pittsboro, N.C., management consulting and business development firm.

Whenever you are contemplating something new in the medical arena, it’s inevitable that you will want to know what clinicians think about it or the environment it will occupy. The obvious way to hear those views is to speak with them. Sure, you can read what they publish or what “industry experts” write, but at the end of the day you will want to have real conversations with a cross section of potential users: physicians, nurses and technologists. I have some thoughts to share with you about dialogs with physicians. (Nurses and technologists are equally important sources but the techniques in those cases are significantly different and deserve separate treatment.)

I’m not talking about quantitative surveys conducted online, through the mail or at medical meetings. These methods all have their place among primary research techniques. Rather, I’m referring to in-depth, qualitative, open-ended conversations with doctors in areas of their expertise and interests. Make no mistake, these are not easy or inexpensive to accomplish but the results are often invaluable.

I see the process as having four parts:

• understanding what you’re attempting to accomplish – that is, setting your objectives and defining the class of physicians you will need to talk to;
• identifying specific physicians and recruiting them to participate;
• conducting the interview; and
• interpreting what you hear and converting those responses into relevant findings and (hopefully) insight.

The first, and most important, order of business is to know what information you are trying to extract. Our assumption here is that you need detailed, qualitative clinical insight on a topic of interest, which suggests that telephone or in-person interviews would be most suitable. Who can provide the insight you seek? What clinical specialties should be represented? Where should they be working – academic institutions, community hospitals or private practice? In other words, what kinds of physicians are most likely to contribute the insight you seek?

Now, how do you identify these doctors and entice them to participate? In our experience the incentives that matter most are 1) interest in the topic of discussion and 2) cash. Money sometimes works alone but it’s much better if both motivations are in play. However, you must first identify some candidates with experience in the matters at hand. Academics are the easiest to identify because they publish, while physicians in private practice and those employed by hospitals are more challenging. Professional associations can sometimes help. Once identified they can be invited to participate by e-mail, phone or fax. We find e-mail recruiting to be the most effective, but getting physician e-mail addresses can be challenging. If all else fails you can partner with a provider of physician panels, i.e., doctors who have previously agreed to participate in market research for a fee.

The discussion, whether it takes place by telephone or in person, should be just that – a discussion between peers, not a survey. Of course, to qualify as a peer you must know a good deal about the topic of interest before the discussion takes place. While a written discussion guide is essential to start, it’s best if the discussion is wide-ranging and led about equally by the two parties. Treat the respondent as a professional person, not a medical authority from whom you are attempting to pry data; establish some personal rapport; no deception and no selling. Throughout the Q&A process try to understand the respondent’s frame of reference and concerns. On each issue is s/he motivated by purely clinical preferences, concern for the patient, procedural efficiency, economics or what?

Now for the creative part: converting fact and opinion to insight. It’s really a matter of collating the data, stepping back to see the big picture, then drilling down into a few key issues. There’s no recipe for this interpretive process, and it’s important to keep in mind potential respondent biases along the way. You can expect a few lies and half-truths, some hidden (or not so hidden) agendas and some important personal economic drivers. Nevertheless, in most situations a doctor’s concern for the patient will trump other motivations. Just be sure you weigh each respondent’s answers against that physician’s depth of experience and credibility.

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2 Responses to Gaining clinical insight with physician interviews

  1. Good points. We’ve found that half the battle in establishing rapport with providers involves being educated about the industry in general, and the survey topic in particular. Sure, it’s easy enough to read the latest trade articles to get a firm grasp on a given healthcare topic. I believe the experience gained through networking at industry-related events gives a great boost to discussions/surveys with providers. They’ll realize you have an authentic feel for what is going on their world, and hopefully the conversation will flow that much easier.

    On a side note, I agree that an interesting topic often does rank above money when it comes to providers participating in research. Recent interviews with several hospital CIOs on just that subject confirmed it:

  2. Agreed, some physicians’ concerns for patients will trump personal motivation, but not all. So many factors come into play – the specific healthcare system under which they operate being a strong one(HMO? Fee for service? National Health Scheme?) Also, how long have they been practicing? How is their enthusiasm meter holding up? Because of this, domain knowledge can be very useful in this category, as in many others – knowing the subjects’ context very well comes in handy.

    As for analysis of results from depth-interviews or small group sessions with expert healthcare providers, another technique that can be very helpful is to share some portion of the results with them, and allow them to challenge your conclusions. This can be a great way to create a bond, to allow sober second thought about your assumptions, and to have them do the same.

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