How to find out what your patients really think

Focus groups can be put together easily

Running a focus group is actually quite simple. A practice administrator can gather the group together, define the topic, and launch the discussion, says George Miaoulis Jr., PhD, president of Marketing Strategy & Research in Camden, ME, a healthcare consulting firm. (See editor’s note for resource information about establishing focus groups.)

Here is some basic advice from Miaoulis and others:

Focus on the most immediate visit.

If patients begin to talk about a prior experience, steer them back to the main topic — 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 you to hear from patients, not for them to hear explanations from you. 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 overbook, Mr. Schlager?"

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

Involve an independent party as 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 specialize in measuring patient-centered care. "That’s a mistake because they can’t be neutral."

Instead, you could use a counselor or a marketing expert from a local college, suggests Schlager. To make focus groups more cost- effective, the marketing specialist could serve as 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 your surveys, you can ask patients if they would be willing to participate in a focus group. You may want to target a special patient group, such as patients with diabetes or cancer. The Picker Institute also uses focus groups to design surveys for group practices and hospitals.

[Editor’s note: For resource 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, The Picker Institute, 1295 Boylston St., Suite 100, Boston, MA 02215. Telephone: (617) 667-2388.]