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Neuroscience in healthcare fieldwork – is it a no-brainer?

As market researchers, we’re always on the look out for new ways to collect data more effectively and improve our healthcare fieldwork – the industry’s been that way since taking its tentative first steps back in the early 20th century.

This constant drive to evolve means market research has seen lots of ground-breaking innovations over the past 100 years or so. Now, we’re wrestling with the best way to use one of the newest kids on the block – neuroscience.

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Neuroscience is the study of the brain, in particular how those billions of tiny interconnected neurons we have whizzing around it have an impact on our thoughts, actions and behaviours. It uses clever technology, including eye tracking, facial coding and brainwave measurement, and measures things like sweat, heart rate, breathing and movement, to help understand what respondents are actually thinking. It’s able to map their reactions to stimuli in seconds, track their emotional responses in real time, understand their brain responses and capture them at a subconscious level. It can even help explain why people say one thing but do another. Pretty nifty, eh?

Neuroscience is at work in lots of areas of market research – retailers use it to test packaging and shelving, film studios to test movies, the list goes on. It’s proving itself to be highly effective. No wonder then that companies like consumer giants Proctor and Gamble continue to invest in it so heavily. But can using the same techniques in healthcare fieldwork benefit the medical industry and help patients and healthcare professionals?

Neuroscience already plays a vital part in new medical procedures. It helps people suffering from dementia and seizures, for example. Despite this, its use in healthcare fieldwork lags far behind the rest of the industry. Why is this? Well, it can be difficult to find the right type of project in which to use new methodologies and technologies such as this. Maybe the amount invested in traditional methods of collecting healthcare market research data is standing in our way. Maybe there’s a bit of mistrust or ethical worry about how the data is collected. Whatever the reasons, rather than seeing neuroscience as something in danger of taking over, perhaps it’s better to see it as another useful string to the bow for measuring behaviour and emotional response.

Where could it fit in?

We know qualitative and survey methods are most vulnerable to distortion when they involve sensitive material. After all, talking about your health, answering questions and being open about your feelings when it comes to a medical condition can be tricky. Getting a good grasp of how patients are feeling about certain medical procedures, aftercare, health equipment, and their attitude to medication, can be misleading. Patients might be embarrassed to tell the truth, or genuinely mean what they say (äóÖI’ll definitely keep a proper eye on my blood sugar levels from now on!’), only for their good intentions to desert them a few days or weeks down the line. They may feel better, so their thoughts or memories of their illness may change leading to unreliable data. This is where neuroscience could step in. It can uncover the emotions involved in decision making, separating them from the rational. And, as it doesn’t rely on explicit questions, it has the potential to reveal unstated attitudes more effectively. It’s possible that using 3D computer simulations and facial coding to identify emotional responses at a subconscious level could even help people stay healthy. Add the possibility of giving healthcare professionals more insight into how to support patient’s efforts, and we could be onto a winner.

Of course, there are concerns about using neuroscience in this way, with implications for ethics and guidelines. Being hooked up to sciency-looking machines may be a bit daunting or even intimidating, especially for people feeling poorly or vulnerable. Respondents may feel they can’t say no, or they might not fully understand what’s actually happening, and be afraid or unable to ask. Another possibly contentious area could be how market researchers get consent. However, used in the right way it’s feasible that neuroscience could take its place alongside traditional data harvesting as an important tool.

Predicting behaviour change in healthcare market research is a huge asset. Finding new, accurate and reliable ways of doing so could also be of great benefit to the medical community. Neuroscience could help give more accurate data on everything from packaging testing to ad concepts, and from purchasing decisions to enhancing product positioning. This could help patients by giving them easier to follow packaging, so they stick to their prescriptions and speed up their recovery. It could also help save the medical industry time and money by offering deeper insight, allowing them a better understanding of how their products are viewed and the best ways to improve them.

Whatever healthcare market researchers think of neuroscience, it looks like it’s here to stay. Now, it’s time to decide the best way forward for yet another new innovation in the ongoing market research journey.

Read our blog on wearable technology to find out more about where the healthcare market research industry can expand next.

Alternatively, download our panel book for more information on the full range of healthcare professionals we have access to for healthcare market research.