Sensitive Topics in Medical Device Market Research: Challenges and Techniques

Market research plays a critical role in understanding patient needs, experiences and decision making in the context of medical devices. However, when dealing with particularly sensitive topics, such as low testosterone and urinary or faecal incontinence, researchers face unique challenges.

In this commentary I’d like to rationalise the difficulties encountered during qualitative research interviews with patients diagnosed with these conditions and explain some of the techniques we, as experienced moderators, use to overcome them.

Challenges in Qualitative Research Interviews

Stigma and Embarrassment
Patients living with conditions like incontinence and low testosterone often experience feelings of embarrassment or shame. This can lead to reluctance in discussing their experiences openly, potentially leading to biased or incomplete data.

Emotional Distress
Participants may become upset when discussing their condition, especially if it is something they are ashamed of or that has a negative impact on their quality of life. Not only may this lead to biased or incomplete insights but may also impact patient well-being.

Limited Availability of Participants
Those living with sensitive health conditions may be hesitant to participate in research, reducing the pool of potential participants. This can make recruiting an adequate sample size more challenging.

Establishing Trust
Building trust with participants is crucial in any research. However, patients dealing with sensitive health issues may be uncomfortable sharing personal information with researchers, making it harder to establish rapport.

Using the Interview as a Therapeutic Outlet
Participants may have limited opportunity to speak confidentially about their condition. This can sometimes lead to them using the interview to serve as a therapeutic session. While this can offer valuable insights, it can prove difficult to strike a balance between providing a supportive environment while maintaining a focus on the research objectives.

Techniques for Overcoming These Challenges

With years of experience behind us, we at CMR have crafted a series of techniques to overcome the difficulties faced when speaking to patients diagnosed with sensitive conditions.

Creating a Safe Environment
To mitigate feelings of embarrassment or discomfort, it is important to create an environment in which the participant can feel safe to share their feelings and experiences. For example, when conducting the interview via video, it is fundamental to brief the participant to ensure they are in a setting where their discussion with the moderator cannot be overheard.

Transparent Communication and Informed Consent
Before commencing any research exercise, it is paramount for the moderator to clearly communicate the purpose of the study, provide detailed information about the confidentiality of responses and how the data will be used, before gaining the participants informed consent to proceed. This process becomes even more important when the topic being discussed is particularly sensitive, to ensure the participant feels secure in their involvement.

Building Rapport
It is important to establish a rapport before asking participants any sensitive questions associated with their condition. To achieve this, our moderators take time at the start of each interview to introduce themselves to the participant and explore their experiences in a more general way before getting into more specific details.

Reflecting the Participant’s Use of Language
Moderators should pay close attention to the language that participants use to describe their condition and experiences. They may then use the same language in their own questions and responses to demonstrate that they are listening carefully and empathising with the participant’s perspective. For example, if a participant uses the word ‘bowel problem’ to talk about their faecal incontinence, the researcher could adopt this approach too when asking follow-up questions. This can help to build trust and rapport and make it more likely that the participant will share their honest experiences.

Being Sensitive to the Participant’s Needs
It is important that the moderator is considerate of the participant’s needs, being prepared to take breaks, or stop the interview altogether if the participant becomes distressed. It is also important for the participant to know that they can skip any questions that they do not want to answer.

Redirecting with Sensitivity
When participants delve into deeply personal or emotional aspects of their condition to the extent that they veer off course from the focus of the research, it is important for the moderator to redirect the conversation kindly and tactfully. For example, they might say “Thank you for sharing that with me. I can imagine it’s an important aspect of your experience. Now, let’s focus on how your condition impacts your day-to-day life.”

Signposting to Ongoing Support
At the conclusion of the interview, it is important to provide participants with information about relevant support organisations, helplines, or online communities. This ensures they have access to ongoing resources and can seek additional assistance if needed.

Concluding Thoughts

While these techniques are often employed for all types of qualitative interviews, they are fundamental when dealing with sensitive topics. We, at CMR, are a team of research specialists who have a wealth of experience in helping our clients navigate this space. We pride ourselves in striking the balance between providing support for participants’ well-being and emotional needs, while ensuring the goals of the research are achieved and that powerful insights are unlocked.

Take a look at a couple of recent studies we have worked on surrounding two particularly sensitive topics.

Developing a testosterone replacement therapy.

Driving market share for faecal incontinence therapy.

Author: Amy Berrera