Article Number: 0396
ęCopyright 1992 Quirk's Marketing Research Review ( All rights reserved.

January, 1992

Focus groups with physicians have different requirements than those with consumers

By: Thomas Greenbaum

Editor's note: Thomas Greenbaum is executive vice president of Clarion Marketing and Communication, Greenwich, Conn.

Focus groups are generally recognized to be the most widely used form of market research in America. A recent study by the Advertising Research Foundation reported that virtually all business organizations use focus groups as a vehicle to learn more about reactions to their products and services.

One market segment that is frequently used for focus groups is physicians. Doctors are recruited for focus groups by a wide variety of organizations, including pharmaceutical manufacturers, producers of over the counter medications, financial services companies, and others seeking to talk to the very high income segment of our society.

Conducting focus groups with physicians requires some different procedures and techniques than are used in either consumer or business focus groups. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the key factors that should be considered in implementing focus groups with physicians to maximize the quality of the research.

1. Make a special effort. even if it requires additional expense. to recruit physicians that do not regularly participate in focus groups. Because of the demand for focus groups with doctors, and the difficulty motivating physicians to participate, there appears to be a relatively small cadre of doctors willing to participate in focus groups. They can become "professional" focus group participants because of their familiarity with the technique, and therefore come to the group with two major disadvantages:

2. Take specific actions with the physicians that will help make them react more like objective participants in the groups. rather than "experts" who have come to pass judgment over the topic being researched. It is important to establish an environment whereby the participants react to the subject matter from their own perspective, rather than trying to second guess the client organization sponsoring the groups. To achieve the needed environment, the moderator should:

3. Do not permit physicians in the room with beepers or portable telephones, and ensure that they know they will not be permitted to leave the room for telephone calls during the session. This can be a real problem, as some doctors feel they must regularly leave the room to follow up on patient situations. When this happens, it negatively effects the dynamics of the group, and precludes the moderator maximizing the input of all the participants.

4. Pay special attention to screening details. to insure that the correct people are recruited. For example, the type of problems that can occur are:

5. Conduct enough groups to feel confident that the information that has been obtained is reasonably representative of what might be gathered from the full physician universe. While focus groups are a qualitative technique and are not projectable, some organizations compound the problems of this methodology by implementing only one group with a physician target, thinking that this is representative of the larger universe.

6. Where appropriate. insure that both sexes are represented in the groups. as they might have very different views on treatment. For example, I have found that male and female dermatologists often have very different views about various treatments which probably can be traced to personal experience.

7. Insure that your moderator is experienced in conducting focus groups with physicians. A successful moderator in the medical environment must be comfortable with (as opposed to intimidated by) the target audience and be able to take immediate control of the group. Further, this individual must be able to quickly learn the medical jargon necessary to discuss the topic intelligently with the participants. To this end, for most topics with physicians, it is better to have a moderator who is highly skilled in the focus group technique but who is not a physician, rather than a physician who conducts a few groups a year and has been hired to do the sessions because of the medical background.

Implementation of the group
1. Insure that the subject of the focus group is really something that the participants can provide meaningful insight into versus what the client can discover for themselves. A major mistake many organizations make with physician focus groups is to establish unrealistic objectives for the research, in terms of the capabilities of the methodology or the skills of the physicians. For example, focus groups with physicians about advertising should focus on the copy consent of the ads (i.e., is it correct, believable, convincing) rather than the overall reaction to the advertising.

2. In the implementation of the groups. have the physicians write down their reactions to subjects being explored before they are opened up to the group for general discussion. The purpose of this is to reduce the negative impact of group dynamics among the participants. By asking the doctors to write their views down before they are shared with the group, it is more likely that the individual will not be influenced by the comments of the other doctors relative to the topic at hand.

3. Seek to make the groups as interesting as possible. particularly if the subject matter is inherently not exciting. For example, I have found that focus groups dealing with new medications or new treatment modalities are normally of great interest to the doctors, and will usually result in active participation throughout the entire session. However, groups dealing with over the counter medications, packaging, advertising or office procedure are generally of considerably less interest to the doctors and require more effort to make them interesting. Some techniques for adding interest value to groups are:

4. When appropriate. seek the physician's input toward the topic as an individual or a parent. and not only as a doctor. For example, if you are researching a new type of OTC medication, it would not be inappropriate to ask the doctor whether she or he would bring samples home for family use or whether the physician would prescribe this medication for a family member rather than the brand that has traditionally been used. This type of exploration often provides insight into the real feelings about a particular product which cannot be obtained by holding the physician in the traditional medical role.

In summary, focus groups with physicians require some different considerations than those conducted with other target segments. However, by following the guidelines provided in this article, one can maximize the output from focus group research with the medical profession.