Staying Close to Medical Customers in the Era of “6 Feet Apart”

By John Mitchell

Nearly overnight, the rules for conducting Voice of the Customer research have completely changed in every industry. But, since the coronavirus crisis is above all a health crisis, nowhere are those rules changing more drastically than in medical devices, diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals. Product developers and marketers in medical products companies must therefore adapt how they study customers and adopt new methods to continue to stay ahead of a radically evolving customer landscape.

The most significant impact of the pandemic on medical market research is that studies within a clinical setting are now next to impossible. As long as patients have difficulty securing in-office appointments, relying instead on telemedicine, manufacturer representatives should expect to be shut out of physician offices, outpatient clinics, and hospitals for practically any purpose. Clinician interviews or in-person observation of procedures or back-office activities must wait until the crisis passes and physical distancing restrictions are relaxed.

Similarly, in-person interviews with patients will remain off the table for the next while. Despite the gradual re-opening of communities and markets following the first peak of COVID-19, the general population will remain apprehensive about face-to-face interaction with strangers, even as market research facilities adapt and reconfigure their sites to comply with new rules for distancing. Patients with certain chronic conditions—autoimmune disorders, cancer, respiratory disease—will be even more reluctant to resume close interaction. It may be a year or more before you watch another in-person focus group with patients.

If you are facing these limitations, but still need to gather insights about medical customers, all is not lost. Just as we have adapted to using technology to conduct our jobs remotely, so too has the market research profession adapted to ensure that despite limits on close contact, we can still stay close to customers.

You may find, for instance, that it is much easier to engage some clinical professionals in your research than it was pre-crisis. While many nurses and physicians are attending to COVID-19 patients in hospitals, others have considerably lighter workloads because stay-at-home orders have put many elective procedures on hold. If your target audience includes clinicians in dentistry, gastroenterology, dermatology, or orthopedic surgery, to name a few, you may find scheduling easier (and incentive compensation smaller). It will likely be easier than usual for respondents to accommodate an hour-long phone call or 20-minute survey. Even as states re-open and elective procedures start up again, it will be a while before clinician workloads return to pre-crisis levels. Consider taking advantage of the lull.

In addition, emerging research technologies can help take the place of other methods that are no longer practical. If you cannot interview a physician in her office, consider conducting your interview virtually over a web-based platform (nearly everyone from students to retirees has gotten very good at virtual meetings over Zoom). If you cannot conduct a focus group with patients behind a one-way window, consider an asynchronous chat or an online synchronous focus-group platform. If you cannot visit a patient’s home to learn about how they manage their disease, consider a mobile ethnography platform to collect those insights remotely. While you may find these experiences fall short of face-to-face interactions in some ways, you will likely find that in other ways they are comparable, if not superior.

If you’d like to learn more about how to stay close to your customers’ needs when you cannot be close to your customers, please contact us today.

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