8 Tips for Conducting Focus Groups with Patients

For healthcare organizations, there are many reasons to use patient focus groups as a market research tool. Focus groups are a very suitable means of gaining in-depth information about your patients’ experiences and feelings, and they also provide the moderator (and client) an opportunity to observe facial expressions and body language.

As with any research tool, there are also downsides to any focus group: they don’t provide quantitative data (which is important for organizations to be aware of in using the results for decision-making purposes) and there is the possibility of the group taking on a life of its own and having behaviors or opinions arise that don’t truly portray many of the participants’ feelings. However, if you have a strategically thought-out research approach, well-defined goals, an experienced and savvy moderator, and a thorough report with recommendations on the “go-forward,” focus groups can be invaluable.

Here are KPS3’s eight focus group tips for healthcare organizations that want to learn more about patients’ experiences, satisfaction, perceptions and attitudes.

1. The healthcare organization must make the first contact.

As the “owner” of the patient relationship and health records, the healthcare organization needs to make the initial contact with the patients to see if they are comfortable with being contacted by the marketing firm, which will further explain the focus groups and finalize details for patients who are willing to participate. You cannot hand off patient contact information (even for a focus group) to an outside party due to HIPAA constraints. You can, however, contract with the marketing firm to complete the recruitment and management process as part of the total scope. We recommend this recruitment approach because too much interaction with you, the healthcare organization that provided the patient services, can influence the patients before they even enter the focus group facility.

This constraint makes it truly difficult to have “blind” focus groups (where participants do not know the sponsor until the end). However, it is achievable through creative means of recruiting a cross section of participants from the market’s range of healthcare organizations, in order to gain competitive information.

2. Choose your patients wisely and without bias.
Recruitment of the pool of patients to draw from can be a challenge. Marketing professionals at healthcare organizations may have to rely upon clinical staff to select possible participants. It is human nature to want to select patients who might have a more positive spin on their experience at the healthcare provider’s facility so that the results of the focus group might turn out to be more positive. Clinical managers, healthcare marketing staff and the marketing agency have to be diligent about ensuring that the universe of patients used for the recruitment pool is truly diverse, in all ways, including the range and tone of experiences with the organization.

3. Location is critical.
Although it’s tempting to host at your facility, it’s preferable to have the sessions off-site. Patients may have residual positive or negative feelings about being at the provider’s facility, and it’s important to have them be in as “neutral” of a state as possible before the start of the session. Try to find a location that is safe and convenient to access, especially after dark or during non business hours, has easy parking, and is near bus lines.

4. Reach your numbers.
The big question we get is “how many focus groups should we do?”. Understanding that focus groups are considered qualitative research rather than quantitative, and that most clients do not have the budget or time to host as many focus groups within any given target market segment as ideal to help address the quantitative margin of error, we suggest conducting at least three focus groups within any given target group. This gives more reliability for our reported results in case one group truly becomes an outlier due to odd behaviors or responses. When we create the findings report, we may report about individual “outlier” or “one-off” responses as a matter of interest but unless it is a key finding across the board, or a trend, we do not note it as important in our insights or recommendations. For each group, we suggest that you recruit with the goal of getting 8 to 12 attendees who actually attend. You can have more than this number participate,  but it can get unwieldy and for some personality types, intimidating.

5. Record the sessions.
We like to have a verbatim record of comments, so we have implemented the practice of hiring a court reporter to sit in on the session to create a record of comments. A copy of a video of the session is also a nice-to-have, but when the marketing firm or healthcare client is doing review of the comments after the session, a written record is invaluable. We find that sometimes putting a video camera in the room is intimidating for some people and/or creates a change in behaviors. However, some of our clients wish to have a video recording, so it’s important to make the camera as unobtrusive as possible in the focus group room and run a video feed to a nearby room where the sponsoring organization can watch the proceedings.

6. Provide incentives (cash works best).
As you recruit patients, be clear that you are offering a cash “thank you” incentive that they will receive after the session is complete and if they stay for the entire session. Also offer to pay for bus or taxi fare in order to facilitate attendance. We usually offer $35 to $50 per person as an incentive for patient or consumer groups.

7. Hire an expert moderator.
For healthcare organizations, it’s important to hire a moderator that speaks your language and the patients’. They should bring their knowledge of the healthcare industry to bear in the development of the moderator’s guide (the detailed document – not simply a script – that will guide the conversation). Try to contract with a focus group moderator that has a good understanding of patient interactions, healthcare terminology, your organizational structure, patient processes and the psychology of the patient interaction with healthcare providers, in addition to all of the other attributes of a good moderator. A good moderator knows how to engage participants who are shy or hesitant to contribute, can respectfully control the conversation, can follow a guide of questioning while also asking good follow-up questions when appropriate, and can take mental and physical notes of key insights and trends as they emerge during the session.

A moderator that truly understands your organization as well as your audience will also understand your goals and the obstacles that come with them. This means they will be able to guide the conversation, so that your focus groups give you the most pertinent information for your desired outcome. Which brings us to our final tip….

8. Define your outcome.
If the sponsoring healthcare organization wishes to have recommendations for future actions as part of the resulting report, be certain to contract with a marketing firm that has a clear understanding of healthcare organizations and the psychology of those organizations’ interactions with the patient. Otherwise, you may receive a report with highlights and insights, but no recommendations or roadmap for next steps.

Patient focus groups are fascinating, interesting and insightful. They are often not for the faint of heart. If you are a healthcare organization wanting to get the most of your focus groups, be certain that you hire the right marketing research partner to help you achieve your goals.


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