Mobile research taking us on the patient journey

John Branston discusses how mobile research brings us closer to the patient in our mobile health themed month.

For many years, marketing teams focused on how to influence physician share of voice and did little more than pay lip service to the notion that patients were at the centre of the provision of healthcare. Now there is recognition that the success of many medications depends not only on the hard-won clinical advantage, but also on how patients negotiate key moments in their experience of their disease. Increasingly, marketing effectiveness is being improved by an enhanced understanding of the picture that emerges when the dots of the longitudinal patient experience are joined. This in turn leads to an increased need to understand those touch points in greater detail and something of a challenge to market researchers to deliver better and more targeted insights.

We have seen marketing effectiveness greatly improved by a better understanding of the patient. Going forward, the pressure is on market research to deliver better and more targeted insights. As a market researcher, the recent advent of mobile research techniques has been very timely in enabling access to the patient experience and getting marketers closer to the action.

New research techniques: mobile

One drawback of traditional patient research and ethnography has always been that it has been costly to conduct, whether relying on physician recruitment for larger numbers of patients, or employing an ethnographer to get up close with a very small number of individual patients.

Now we have the tools to conduct research using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets (e.g. iPad) that are equipped with cameras, sound recording devices, GPS and other technology that, with a little inventive thought, can be harnessed to deliver valuable insight. Our target respondents not only own these devices in huge numbers (check out smartphone / tablet penetration in any given market), but take them with them pretty much everywhere they go. This means that we are able to uncover in-the-moment effects of disease in private, social and work situations, as well as focusing on the patient side of interface with healthcare provision.

The popularity of social media clearly demonstrates the relish with which people will share their experiences online and via mobile devices, given the correct environment. Any concern about whether mobile devices can truly penetrate to the most personal feelings about intimate aspects of disease has been assuaged by mobile research among patients, which appears to act as a significant enabler for the patient voice.

Note too that mobile devices have spawned new forms of behaviour and interaction; it is intuitive that the same devices offer the best options for accessing these behaviours for research purposes.

“We have seen marketing effectiveness greatly improved by a better understanding of the patient.”

Negotiating roadblocks on the patient journey

A key part of understanding the patient journey lies in recognising how specific situations can lead to differing outcomes, depending on what a patient does, says, knows, feels or thinks at that time. While some patients may appear ‘predestined’ to make certain (bad) choices, these can still be influenced if predictive signals are detected at an early enough stage. The pharma marketer has an opportunity to recognise potential “roadblocks” and put support processes in place to effect a positive outcome.

This leads us to consider the importance and dynamics of specific touch-points in the patient experience. Mobile research now gives us ‘access all areas’, even beyond the up-close ethnographic view. We are therefore challenged to explore new ways to harness the power of mobile research to access key situations.

Understanding physician behaviour as part of the patient-centric view

A patient-centric view of disease management cannot ignore prescribers and other healthcare practitioners who shape the patients’ view of their care. Physician research still remains a key component of understanding the patient journey.

No matter the clinical advantages of novel therapies, the potential barriers to prescription (in addition to cost and reimbursement issues) definitely include the way that the physician perceives the patient.

“The pharma marketer has an opportunity to recognise potential “roadblocks” and put support processes in place to affect a positive outcome.”

We have found mobile research to be the perfect medium for accessing physician rationale in respect of individual patient decisions; the degree to which patient circumstance and a sub-conscious ‘attitudinal segmentation’ of patients can outweigh clinical factors has been a real eye-opener.

The insights gained at the point of prescription not only contribute to our understanding of the patient journey, but reinforce the importance of understanding the patient-centric issues that define aspects of their presentation.

And the inherent value of getting in-the-moment rationale for these key decisions does not come at the cost of robust methodological design; the seasoned researcher will warm to the level of rigour that can be maintained in using these new tools.


Mobile research has also proved beneficial for measuring compliance among patients with chronic disease. Whereas diary studies can produce biased results as patients alter their usual behaviour by taking part, mobile research has the ability to lay bare the circumstances and mindsets that can incubate non-compliance – either as isolated episodes, or as a more entrenched disconnect with a medication – among patients, hugely limiting a therapy’s chances of success.

Questionnaires on compliance can be scheduled to ‘pop up’ in the patient’s life, seemingly at random, and tap into the moment. “What’s been going on?”, “Where are you now?” “How well did you take your meds in the last 48 hours?”…

“The insights gained at the point of prescription not only contribute to our understanding of the patient journey, but reinforce the importance of understanding the patient-centric issues…”


Comparing respondents’ stated self-assessment of their general compliance with in-the-moment measurement of correct intake has revealed striking mis-matches between (self-) report and observed behaviour. Respondents are not inhibited about giving reasons why compliance has been a problem, nor are they reticent in suggesting what could be done to make things easier.

The future

We believe that the short, focused interactions of mobile research are very much in tune with our respondents’ day-to-day lives and consequently offer many advantages for getting closer to the patient experience. Mobile research techniques will continue to develop and become more sophisticated as the technical capabilities of mobile devices themselves improve.

In the meantime, a focus on developing the best techniques to exploit the benefits of mobile research as a solution will offers new ways of improving our understanding of the patient journey.



About the author:

John Branston has been working in global healthcare MR since 1993. He worked at with the GfK group, Psyma International and PSL Research, prior to joining Research Partnership in 2006. At Research Partnership, John runs custom marketing research projects for European clients utilising the full range of primary MR techniques, supported by the company’s other offerings, including RPTherapyWatch (patient chart audit service) and Access Partnership (market access specialists).

Throughout his career, John has worked in pioneering new methodologies and approaches and helping deliver a working understanding of how these can be implemented in the healthcare MR field. In the early 2000s John ran online research workshops with many clients and took them through their earliest online research studies, with learnings being shared in the form of papers at industry conferences and meetings. More recently, John has pioneered the use of mobile research techniques in healthcare, with an early case study winning the EphMRA ‘Best Paper’ award at the 2012 AGM. Work since has focused both on developing mobile research as a part of the wider MR arsenal and on designing stand-alone services that rely on the new capabilities afforded by mobile.

Can mobile research help us to get a better insight into patients’ behaviour?