Improving HCP participation in primary market research

The decline in numbers of healthcare professionals (HCPs) willing to contribute to market research could have a detrimental effect on the quality of data provided to pharma. John Aitchison reports on why fewer are willing to join in and offers five changes that need to be made to improve uptake.

I count myself lucky as my ‘bread and butter’, primary market research1, has been popular with pharma for decades: informing pre- and post- launch brand strategy; tracking market progress; and guiding on the various tactical decisions that arise as stories unfold.

However, primary market research is becoming slower, costlier and, arguably, less credible because of declining numbers of health professionals (HCPs) willing to take part2. In short, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a sufficiently large and representative sample to answer business objectives with confidence. Data quality is threatened to such a degree that many of us are concerned about the potential for primary market research findings to mislead pharma’s decision making, rather than supporting it.

I know from personal experience that the opening five minutes of any results presentation, where the assembled marketing and brand teams are reminded of the sample size and its composition, are often hard work. Yet, dry as these may be, they are the foundation for good research and demand proper scrutiny. Buyers making assumptions about quality may be making a mistake.

Why the decline?

A group of pharma market researchers, under the auspices of our professional body, the British Healthcare Business Intelligence Association (BHBIA), recently investigated the issue from the perspective of HCPs themselves, pinpointing their most serious concerns and making recommendations for improvement. As you’d expect, we were diligent as to sample3, making sure, for example, to include HCPs whose participation had lapsed, as well as those who had previously shown little interest. We wanted to know what was putting them off and what would encourage them to participate, so that others might follow suit.

The first finding was that it’s not about how much we pay them. What matters more is delivering a research experience that shows respect for their time and expertise, thus preserving the participant goodwill upon which all market research rests. And therein lie the problems. Their major frustration is with ‘screening’ – the preliminary questions we must ask to determine whether the HCP we’re inviting has a speciality, background, and caseload relevant to the objectives. The HCP view is that this takes too long and is too stringent, and fixing it heads the top five changes we must make:

  1. Improve screening. Fieldwork companies4 must get better at profiling and targeting HCPs, so that we can reach our sample more effectively, minimise the time spent answering qualifying questions, and reduce the proportion that fail them. Research buyers and their agencies must stop trying to get ‘free’ data by adding questions to the screener that are non-consequential to qualifying, and allow participants to screen out as early as possible rather than forcing them to answer extra questions once non-relevance to the study has been established. And should fieldwork prove more challenging in practice than on paper, it pays to build a sensible amount of slack into the sample specification, so recruiters are not left chasing the proverbial one-armed, ginger-haired, haematology professor from north Norfolk.
  2. Be honest about timings. Participants reported feeling commoditised, misled, or even cheated when research tasks take longer than advertised. The temptation to add one last question is one we must resist. Amidst the cut and thrust of getting a research project turned around as quickly as possible it is easy to forget that, for pharma, the disgruntled research participant and the valued customer may very easily be one and the same person.
  3. Improve research design. We can’t eliminate bad questions but as researchers we can improve and intensify training and ‘call out’ repetitive or boring designs. Research buyers must also recognise that designing a survey to capture every data point that may be relevant to the objectives leads to respondent fatigue, which in turn leads to poorer data quality. The better approach is to include only what you really need.
  4. Pay promptly. The frequency with which HCPs reported delayed and even non-payment of remuneration was alarming. A common reason for delay is that data needs to be quality checked and signed off, and sometimes that doesn’t happen until the buyer is happy with the deliverables, which can mean a long wait. Most HCPs would be satisfied to receive remuneration within two weeks of participation, which is hardly unreasonable.
  5. Make participation more convenient. Many doctors tell us that they’d be open to participating later in the evening, after 9pm. While this may be less popular among researchers and any buyers who wish to observe, it would enable more HCPs to participate and demonstrate that we care about them.

At least three of these five suggested changes have their roots in a breaking down of the goodwill between market researcher and participant, and rebuilding that is our top priority.

Beyond that, many other improvements need to be made, and while most of these fall to the supply-side, pharma needs to play its part along the lines suggested above.

Beyond that, why not share media stories about how primary market research has played a role in delivering better treatment with the HCP? While it is true that market research wouldn’t be viable without remuneration, willingness to participate is also heavily driven by curiosity about what is going on in pharma, and a desire to contribute to clinical developments.

Although much of what we ask in our studies is obviously client confidential, some contextual findings are arguably not commercially sensitive, and would fascinate and inform if fed back to HCPs post project completion.

I leave those who commission primary market research among HCPs with this summary advice:

–          Tune in to sample: have mastery of the specification, and be proactive and constructive during fieldwork. Encourage the direct involvement of the fieldwork provider in briefing discussions/progress updates and listen to their recommendations and concerns.

–          Examine the scope of your objectives, and test-drive the resultant questions. Are they focused on what you really need?

–          Respect the HCP market research participant as you would a valuable customer – they are one and the same! Would the questions asked command your attention?

For more, download the BHBIA’s full report, its accompanying summary, and newly-developed guidelines on ‘screener’ best practice via the BHBIA website.


  1. Primary market research is the process of capturing data direct from HCPs themselves, to answer specific questions, whereas secondary market research is the process of compiling and analysing the data and findings of others, often using a variety of different sources.
  2. The incontrovertible evidence for declining HCP participation lies in the digital records of fieldwork companies, the testimony of independent recruiters, and in ever-lengthening fieldwork periods.
  3. The BHBIA sponsored a programme of qualitative (face to face) and quantitative (online survey) research amongst a mix of UK based primary care and secondary care physicians, nurses and pharmacists. The qualitative work comprised one group discussions and 15 depth interviews, and the quantitative work fielded an online questionnaire of 20 minutes duration, amongst n=UK 423 clinicians of mixed specialty. Fieldwork was conducted in late 2016 and early 2017.
  4. Fieldwork companies are those who have direct (personal or online) contact with HCPs to conduct the market research interviews (the fieldwork phase); they are often sub-contracted to a separate market research agency who is accountable to the pharma client.

About the author:

John Aitchison is co-Chair of the BHBIA Response Rate Task Force and managing director, First Line Research. He has over 20 years’ experience in healthcare business intelligence and enjoys applying good ideas from beyond the sector.

First Line Research specialises in quantitative online research and techniques inspired by behavioural science.