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A beginner’s guide to ethnography in patient market research

Ethnography is officially defined as’a qualitative research approach that involves relative submersion into the setting to be studied‘- or, to put it more simply, it’s when researchers observe participants in their own environment to learn first-hand their opinions and how they behave. With its roots in anthropological study, ethnography is helpful in a number of research areas, but especially so in patient market research because it allows researchers to get right to the heart of how patients think, behave and feel in an environment they are comfortable in. Ethnography gives the rich insights  you can achieve through traditional qualitative research but in a natural setting where participants can really open up – which can be incredibly beneficial when it comes to some of the sensitive subjects touched upon in medical market research.

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What does it involve?

Ethnographic research involves the researcher observing the participant in their natural habitat to get a deep understanding of their everyday behaviour. Throughout the study, the researcher will talk to the patient directly about their experiences, allowing them to personally describe their thoughts and feelings and provide illuminating information on things that might not have been obvious in other research scenarios. It’s especially useful for medical market researchers because it allows them to gain an in-depth understanding of health, illnesses and even treatment from a patient’s perspective. Researchers can sometimes even learn things that the patient themselves hadn’t consciously recognised -enabling  improvements to products and services based on the patient’s true perspectives.

What are the pros and cons?

One of the main benefits of ethnographic research is that researchers can completely immerse themselves in the patients’ lives, building a strong relationship with them that they can nurture throughout the duration of the study. This strong relationship can result in a depth of insight that other methodologies such as questionnaires or focus groups can’t even begin to scratch the surface of. Unlike other methodologies, there is no artificial nature and the research isn’t staged or structured in any way, which again encourages patients to really open up.

Ethnography in patient market research

Other benefits include the ability to put a face to the data enabling you to paint a picture of the person behind the statistics. It’s also a great way to identify any discrepancies between what patients say versus what they actually do – for example, a patient might tell their healthcare professional that they are following a certain diet and taking medications at a specific time of the day or in a specific way, whereas the reality is somewhat different. By uncovering truths that may remain hidden in other scenarios, ethnography can be pretty enlightening for healthcare market researchers!

However like any research method, ethnography has its pros and cons. On the negative side, it can be expensive and take up a lot of the researcher’s time – especially if they need to travel around with the patient or dedicate themselves solely to them for a number of days – which can often be the case. There is also often a need for extra preparation time before and after the research is conducted – and all of these time restrictions can have a limit on sample size because the researcher will have less time to dedicate to this phase of the research. In addition, researchers should also be aware of potential ethical implications and be upfront and honest with patients about the nature of the research and what is expected of them from the beginning using a patient information leaflet.

Whilst there are of course some challenges that need to be overcome when implementing ethnographic research, on balance the results and insights you can gain definitely outweigh the difficulties. After all, short of actually being a patient yourself, it’s the closest thing you can get to understanding the true patient experience.

Here are some key things to bear in mind if you decide to use ethnography as a method for patient market research:

  • Explain to patients exactly why you want to research them
  • Confirm the reason for research in writing along with an information sheet
  • Make timings, activities and tasks clear from the beginning
  • Be careful to use language that the patient understands
  • Avoid unnecessary intrusion of the patient’s personal space

Recruiting and interviewing patients can deliver unbeatable insights and rich qualitative data but does not come without its challenges. For  more recruitment tips and advice, download our step-by-step guide to successful patient fieldwork here.