Kantar Health Blog

Using online communities to embrace change in healthcare research

by Brian Mondry | Sep 2, 2014
Brian Mondry

Let’s start with the basics. What, exactly, is a market research online community or forum? Answer: A private collection of anywhere from 10-200 participants who meet specific target audience criteria. The key is that, unlike a focus group or in-depth phone or live interview, we engage with and learn from these people over an extended time period, not a finite time period that usually maxes out at 60 minutes. 

While the benefits of research communities and forums are in many ways similar, the differences are significant. The key thing is to respect what comprises an actual “community,” whether that community is online or in the real world. You can’t just place a number of patients or doctors together in an online environment and call that a community, even if they share a common disease or specialty. It takes time for a true sense of community to evolve. 

So in the case of an online research forum, the length of engagement falls somewhere between two to three days and a week or two, sometimes even a month depending on the research objectives. In the case of doctors, shorter times are better as it is hard to get the time commitment – so two to three days at most. With patients we can go longer. The shorter timeframe also cuts down on moderation, honoraria and analysis costs. And while there will be exceptions – this is not an ironclad rule – participants will limit their activity to those laid out by the moderator. They will be less likely to comment on other patients’ answers or begin their own discussions, though it is an option for the moderator to encourage such behavior if desired. 

So let’s start looking at all the benefits that come from using online qualitative methodologies versus more traditional qualitative techniques.

Enabling Longitudinal Studies. Because online research communities enable us to engage with the same pool of panelists over extended time periods, we can get a broad understanding of the patient journey by covering a wide array of topics that can inform every phase of a drug lifecycle.

Greater Flexibility. As conditions change and new questions arise over the course of time, we can add new activities/questions or make changes to existing activities/questions as needed.

Wider Recruitment Pool. Online communities and forums expand the type of participants we can engage with. It is online so there are no geographic boundaries we need to stay within. Plus the “do it at home” or “wherever you may be” aspect makes it convenient for immobile patients, busy physicians or parents who are caregivers to young children.

Asynchronous Engagement. I already discussed the fact that these engagements allow us to learn from patients over longer periods of time than is the norm. A benefit coming out of this is that these engagements are asynchronous, NOT real time. So without this sense of urgency to answer a question or provide insight during the time allotted for a focus group or interview, participants have the time to actually apply a deeper level of thought into the issues we are discussing with them. This leads to more considered responses and as a result – deeper levels of insight.

Anonymity. While we know through the recruitment process who and what these patients are, in the context of an online community or forum they are anonymous. And this provides a comfort zone, a safe haven, for speaking freely. Patients, who may feel uncomfortable or shy voicing opinions in focus groups or even on the phone during an interview, can contribute freely without any sense that they’re being judged or looked down upon.

This is especially relevant when dealing with sensitive health topics such as sexual health, obesity or psoriasis, to name a few

Peer-to-Peer Engagement. One very exciting benefit with online research communities is the opportunity for peer-to-peer engagement that goes well beyond moderator-initiated questions and activities. Often in these online research communities, patients suffering a common ailment begin to exchange ideas and discuss issues with each other, not just responding to moderator stimuli. This patient-to-patient engagement enables us to observe how patients genuinely interact. In fact, they may raise questions or issues that we may not even have thought to ask.

Online research communities can apply to ANY qualitative project. But when are they truly the BEST option?

  1. When client requires a broad understanding of how a target group goes about dealing with a particular condition
  2. When client has long-term/longitudinal needs and wants to gain insight from the same panelists for an extended time period
  3. When patients/physicians are geographically dispersed 
  4. When engaging with time-limited caregivers tending to young children
  5. When dealing with patient populations who have difficulty getting around/traveling 
  6. When subject matter difficult to discuss face-to-face

Thousands of pieces have been written on the most detrimental seven words in business: “We have always done things this way.” This certainly applies to many folks in the healthcare market research space where surveys, in-depth interviews and focus groups remain the go-to solution far too often. Online qualitative methodologies are a natural transition from these more traditional approaches. The technology available in the marketplace today makes it so simple to set up and execute an online research forum or community that no real technical savvy is necessary. All that is needed are the skillsets most healthcare researchers already have, plus the ability to embrace change.


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