How to find out what patients really think

If your doctors decide to hold a patient focus group, a practice administrator can gather the group together, define the topic, and launch the discussion, saysGeorge Miaoulis Jr., PhD, president of Marketing Strategy & Research in Camden, ME, a Health care consulting firm. (See editor’s note for resource information about holding focus groups.)

Here is some basic advice from Miaoulis and others:

Focus on the most recent visit.

If patients begin to talk about a prior experience, steer them back to the main question — their last visit to the practice. A patient’s memory of something that happened two years ago may be skewed by incomplete recall, and may no longer be applicable to current practices.

Don’t respond to specific complaints.

The purpose of a focus group is for your doctors to hear from patients, not for patients to hear explanations from them. At Family Health Associates in York, PA, president Dave Schlager, MBA, has had to bite his tongue. For example, a patient may say: "I don’t know how they make appointments. I think they overbook. Is that true, do they over book, Mr. Schlager?"

Rather than launching into details, Schlager deferred to Miaoulis, the moderator, who instead asked the patient to explain why he was upset about the scheduling system.

Involve an independent party as the moderator.

"Doctors and nurses are interested in hearing what patients want to say, so sometimes they will run focus groups," says Margaret Gerteis, PhD, director of communications and education at The Picker Institute, a Boston-based firm that specializes in measuring patient-centered care. "That’s a mistake because they can’t be neutral."

Instead, use a counselor or a marketing expert from a local college, Schlager suggests. To make focus groups more cost-effective, the marketing specialist could serve as the moderator for the first one or two sessions and train the practice administrator to handle others, says Miaoulis.

Use focus groups to enhance surveys.

On patient surveys, ask patients if they would be willing to participate in a focus group. Your doctors may want to target a special patient group, such as those with diabetes or cancer. The Picker Institute also uses focus groups to design surveys for group practices and hospitals. "We use focus groups to see what’s important to patients," says Gerteis. "You want to make sure the questions you’re asking are the right ones."

[Editor’s note: For information on starting a focus group ("The Manual for Conducting Focus Groups," $22 plus shipping), contact George Miaoulis, Jr., President, Marketing Strategy & Research, P.O. Box 879, Camden, ME 04843. Telephone: (207) 236-6272.

For more information about Picker Institute surveys and focus groups, contact Joanne Leamey, Client Services,1295 Boylston St., Suite 100, Boston, MA 02215. Telephone: (617) 667-2388.]