Using Tech to Improve Life Sciences Qual

In this Quirks article, Charu Gupta, Senior Director of Marketing at InCrowd, discusses the use of technology to improve responses and response rates in qualitative research within the life sciences industry.

The full article is quoted below or can be read on

There’s value in valuing their time

How we conceive and conduct qualitative research is in need of a refresh. Market researchers continue to worry about diminishing sample size and quality. This is starker for the life sciences industry, where physicians and health care stakeholders are busy, well-paid professionals who easily ignore or opt out of lengthy or difficult questionnaires.

By most accounts there are about 900,000 prescribing physicians in the United States. The largest health care panels have about 675,000. Response rates are in the 2 to 5 percent range. So, for any type of market research project, physician access is really between 13,000 and 33,000. That’s before any screening for specialty, product use, patient count, eye color, etc.

When it comes to qualitative research participation, there is even more reason to worry. Last year, InCrowd asked more than 100 physicians through our market intelligence platform if they had participated in qualitative research in the last 12 months. Forty-two physicians, about 40 percent, said no. And 36 percent of these physicians said it was because they did not have the time.

For the 63 physicians who did participate in the last 12 months, their top two issues were scheduling (it took three contact attempts on average to get a qual interview scheduled) and the length of interviews (an average of 60 minutes). It is safe to say that if the industry does not make significant advancements in how qual research is conducted (and if drug and device manufacturing companies do not adopt these improvements), then the number of physicians opting out of qual research will only climb.

The good news is that there is meaningful innovation happening in the qual research space. The trick is to find out what is substantive and helpful to methodology and data quality, versus what is just shiny and new.

Ripe for automation
Anyone who’s gone through a qual project knows how tedious it can be. There’s a lot of repetitive steps. What the industry is catching onto, however, is that this very tediousness is also a strength when you throw technology into the mix. The very systematic approach to gathering and interpreting primary market research is exactly what makes it ripe for automation and innovation.

The life sciences industry is slightly different than consumer goods in that it moves more slowly. Government regulations and compliance requirements around conflicts of interest and blinded research necessitate a more cautious approach. Nowhere else will you find the same level of regulation and compliance before bringing products to market. In this climate, life sciences market researchers can do themselves a favor by finding compliance-tested technologies and vendors who are building new tools with this restrictive environment in mind.

It is critical that technology is not just about speeding up the process but, rather, getting the job done both faster and well, with service and compliance built into the technology. This is often where technology businesses get it wrong when they try to enter the health care and life sciences space and why pharma companies (rightfully so) get the jitters in using new technologies.

Shorter interview duration
Let’s get back to our physician findings on the qual experience. One of the top two improvements to their experience was shorter interview duration. Of the 63 physicians who had done qual in last 12 months, 85 percent said they would be very likely to participate if interviews were 15-20 minutes or shorter. Out of the 42 who had not participated at all, 71 percent of them said they would be willing to do the interview if it was, you guessed it, between 15-20 minutes.

Clearly, 15-20 minutes for a qual interview would be the sweet spot for physicians. But is it possible? In some systems now, it can take up to 20 minutes just to screen and qualify physicians to enter the interview. That’s a huge miss – but one that technology can address. Think about it from a physician’s point-of-view: 20 minutes spent on asking screening questions and accepting terms of use before the actual substance of the interview – the reason they responded in the first place – even begins. What’s the likelihood of that physician coming back to such an experience over and over again?

Another top complaint by physicians was the difficulty of getting the interview scheduled in the first place. This is another area ripe for technology. The basic idea is that respondents should be able to select from multiple available interview times and that this information capture should update in real time for everyone involved, from project managers to moderators to clients to physicians. Rescheduling should be just as easy: automated reminders with the ability for respondents to reschedule within the reminder or app itself without having to pick up the phone and manually call the agency or exchange multiple e-mails.

Technology that works this way does exist today. By automating the scheduling process, teams don’t have to hold open massive blocks of time over multiple weeks. Think about it in terms of reducing your qual research timeline from weeks and months to days.

What you cannot lose track of are your compliance needs. Any new technology must be able to handle automated scheduling and enable double-blinded research. For life science companies, subject to rigorous FDA regulation, no compromises can be made here. Look for a level of sophistication that allows moderators to dial out to participants and bring them into a call without actually knowing their phone number. That’s the kicker: increased privacy without the hassle of moderator or participant searching through old e-mails for contact information.

Data and document sharing
Another advantage of technology-enabled qualitative research is centralized data and document sharing. Such central project management dashboards are built into new qual technology platforms, with updates in real time and with user control preferences and push notifications sent to everyone involved. This gets rid of that heinous Excel spreadsheet and the struggle for version control. Online dashboards should not be an add-on or a nice-to-have feature that unlocks at a higher tier. Rather, tech companies that are really thinking about the myriad and complicated processes involved should be providing this functionality at the ground level.

The upside to these kinds of centralized communications and project management dashboards is that you are in control. Interviews, transcripts, recordings, scheduling, discussion guides, etc., all go into one place for you to easily follow and share. But the bottom line is that these platforms remove the need for you to spend your time finding the right participants, scheduling, setting up teleconferencing, managing participants and moderators, recording, transcribing, delivering honoraria or waiting for vendors to coordinate their part of the process. You can spend your time understanding the project needs and analyzing the deliverables. So if these tools exist and they are so awesome, why aren’t they gaining traction?

Wish they could
In a survey by InCrowd in 2017, of about 100 life sciences market researchers, 21 percent told us they are already investing in some of the technology described above. However, another 78 percent told us they aren’t investing but wish they could – due to a variety of factors like budget, status quo, a cautious corporate culture and aversion to risk.

Clearly, the industry is still heavily invested in traditional techniques. The key pain points are broader buy-in across the organization and making sure quality of engagement and representation in sample stay intact.

If you’re not currently using automated qualitative research, look for vendors or technology platforms that are centralizing the management of the qualitative research process. The technology is there to give you control and streamlined interview setup, deployment and deliverables.

For those already using a tech platform currently on the market, check to see if the solution is in fact a series of vendors and platforms sewn together. Though this approach might work in other industries and for other types of projects, when dealing with expensive, real-time interviews with difficult-to-reach physicians, one cannot risk the technological issues that can arise from multiple product integrations.

The last thing you want is to run into compatibility or compliance issues just as you are ready to launch your project or analyze your findings. Look for solutions that are providing a complete package under one roof.

A better way
In this article, we’ve addressed the areas most ripe for automation in qual research. Looking to the future, text analysis for digital coding of interviews will be important. While some text analysis applications are currently out there, they are early in their development stages. There’s also a future where moderators will be able to conduct interviews in multiple countries without human translators. What we do know in the here and now is that physicians are begging for a better way and we must find it. The technology for automated qual – technology that makes qualitative research more manageable and agreeable for both researcher and physician – already exists.

All this adds up to innovation in qualitative research being an exciting new frontier for the life sciences industry. As life sciences market researchers, we must know which platforms to trust and then demand the best.


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