Research Magazine Analysis: Healthcare research often accepts the professional response at face-value. Now, says Toby Newall, it is time to look at the human response


Too often in healthcare research, specialist knowledge and a sound background in medical issues is all that’s considered key to understanding and providing insights.  While this might ring true for some research, this view point can actually be a hindrance. The researcher’s own medical background and immersion in the medical world thwarts taking a ‘fresh’ and more holistic approach to clients’ business and strategic issues.


Step change

It is time for the industry to step back from its own biases towards medical and healthcare professionals and to see the bigger picture. If we do not, our industry risks a huge disservice to its clients by echoing the long-held view that the medical profession, bound in rationality, is beyond the reach of more subtle or emotive campaigns, and as such only responds to functional and rational ones.  Worse still, we risk reporting on how proposed campaigns work from a rational level and ignoring any emotive response as being irrelevant or worse non-existent. Fortunately, clients and ad agencies alike are beginning to question this limited view of healthcare research. They recognise that the challenge is to understand at a deeper and more strategic level how this segment operates and how best to engage this audience with distinctive, memorable and meaningful campaigns.


Split identity

Our bias in how we interact with healthcare professionals can influence the kinds of responses they give us. If we only treat healthcare professionals as professionals we risk missing out on the bigger picture.  After all, only part of a professional’s identity is based in their professional world. As a professional, their business world and advice is constantly under scrutiny from the medical fraternity and its governance, in addition to the demands of their patients, the consumers.  Their professional world is highly structured and regulated. Their day to day operation and training relies heavily on logical frameworks and evidence-based thinking. Conformity, logic and analysis are valued. Personal opinion is the result of rigorous thinking. Hence there is a strong tendency for them to adopt a rational and well-structured response to most lines of questioning.


Inner self

It is to this world that most researchers defer when they approach the healthcare segment. But while we recognise the need to understand the professionals’ viewpoint, to consider only the rational or ‘expert’ view is to understand only half the equation.  Too often we forget that medical professionals are also individuals. There is far more to the professional than his or her ‘white coat’ or medical persona, and behind the façade lies what we refer to as the inner or private self.


Role playing

This other world is far more complex. In it, the professional persona is but a mantle donned to perform on the professional stage. In this inner, less predictable world, individuality and spontaneity are rewarded more than conformity and rigidity.  The challenge for marketers and researchers alike is to tap into that inner world as well as into the professional persona. While one of these might operate or dominate in any given situation, neither operates in a void. Both have voices and both have ears. So both aspects need to be understood from a research perspective.


Are you receiving me?

If the point of communication research is to understand what ideas do to people rather than what people do to ideas, then the challenge for healthcare researchers is to ensure that each idea is presented and explored in such a way as to separate the ‘professional’ or public responses from those of the individual and, plausibly, more ‘humane’ ones.  This requires the researcher to challenge the professional response in order to reach the heart of the matter, and to determine the memorability of an idea or what, if any, mnemonics or copy can be used to strike an emotional chord with the professional in question.  For researchers this means fully understanding the receiving mindset of the professional and analysing their responses accordingly.


Mind over matter

Cabaret has adopted a thinking framework which informs all aspects of its approach to conducting healthcare research. The thinking model is termed ‘mind-filtering’, a mnemonic for reminding ourselves of the dual persona of the healthcare professional.  The aim is to develop a more rounded picture of both the individuals being researched and their responses. The model ensures that researchers do not lose sight of the emotional context that enables them to strengthen the more rational aspects of a communication idea by providing an emotional or tonal edge.  While the model has validity for all stages of the research process from design, through to fieldwork, it comes into its own in the analysis stage. It forces thinking beyond the spoken word and into the practitioner’s behavioural and attitudinal mindset.


Retail therapy

By way of example, take retail pharmacists and their day-to-day interactions with customers in-store. Communication strategies aimed at this segment aim to educate, increase awareness and/or gain greater share of in store recommendations.   Conventional research approaches would merely investigate measures such as communication take-out and memorability. However, it can be dangerous to take this claimed ‘professional’ response at face value or as evidence of a ‘successful’ strategy or communication campaign.  Retail pharmacists have another professional role that has not been accounted for in this approach, let alone their own personal or individual view. Many are also retailers with a need to keep their customers happy. In-store, the communication strategy can unwittingly be overlooked by giving a customer products or brands that have been requested, or by recommending the most popular brand rather than either adhering to pharmacy training or considering the different options available.


Silent voices

The danger is that the human element and the private world of the pharmacist can be overlooked in the development of a campaign. A campaign that is excellent in communicating the benefits of the product can lack a human voice that could provide pharmacists with a rationale to challenge their consumers and to recommend an alternative product.  The ‘mind filtering’ model helps to unlock these additional strands of context and analysis and enables our clients to engage with pharmacists and change behaviour.  Equally the mindsets of doctors, consultants, DHCPs and even midwives all require unravelling before their responses to communication can be understood.


High and dry

Research that is based too heavily on the professional status of respondents fails to take the individual into account and risks becoming one-dimensional and emotionally dry. Ultimately it is in the analysis that communication ideas are really understood. A mind-filtering approach ensures that at this stage the idea is explored in its fullest context.