ethnographic research

Using Ethnography In Healthcare Research

Ethnography has become an invaluable tool in healthcare market research. 

By observing behaviors and interactions in real-world settings, c provides unique insights that traditional surveys, interviews, and focus groups may miss.

For medical device manufacturers, integrating ethnography as part of your research process can uncover unmet needs, pain points, and opportunities that drive innovation.

At IDR Medical, we leverage ethnography  to help our clients gain a deep understanding of end-user experiences so they are able to develop new products and services that align with customer needs. 


Want to learn more? Check out The Ultimate Guide On Healthcare Market Research 


Why do we use ethnography in healthcare research?

Developing and launching a new medical device or service can be complex, and requires a multitude of different research methodologies to uncover actionable market and customer insight to help deliver success. 

Ethnography as part of your research methodology can be useful in a variety of areas: 


Evaluating new products and services

Ethnography is commonly used in healthcare to provide valuable insights to product design teams.

We can use ethnography to explore new product concepts, which could be either a new feature of an existing product, or an entirely new device, platform or service.

For instance, a new medical device may seem revolutionary in terms of its technical capabilities, but if it's too complicated for a patient to use or a nurse to administer, ethnographic research will identify that there needs to be some adjustments before launch. 

Ethnographic research can help identify potential real-world issues before launching a product, allowing researchers to iterate and improve upon design aspects that don't work as anticipated in practical scenarios.


Discover how healthcare professionals and patients interact with medical technologies

Another effective application of ethnography in healthcare is to observe healthcare professionals and patients while they use a specific medical device or solution.

For example, an ethnographic study of people with sleep apnea may explore how they use a CPAP device in their daily lives at home, including the challenges they face, how they set the device up, and how they interact with it.

This gives researchers the opportunity to identify barriers to effective use or pain points for the user, which can be used to inform product improvements. 


Uncover unmet needs

Unmet needs in healthcare can be defined as the gaps in treatment or limitations of existing products and services that are yet to be effectively addressed. 

By observing behaviors in a real-world setting, ethnography can help uncover these hidden needs, often identifying gaps or opportunities for improvements that might not be immediately apparent in typical interviews or surveys. 

These essential findings can inform research and development priorities, highlighting areas where current products can be improved or enhanced, or where new product opportunities lie.


Observe workflows, processes, and procedures

Another great use of ethnography is the observation and investigation of healthcare professionals' daily routines, workflows, and procedures. 

This can provide valuable insights that identify bottle-necks or inefficiencies in current workflows, or processes that new solutions can help to address. 

As an example, by closely observing how radiology technicians interact with patients and medical imaging equipment, researchers can identify all the steps involved: from data entry to the EMR or RIS, identifying the correct imaging protocol to patient interactions.

Through observation, the challenges and pain points in the process can be identified, allowing medical device manufacturers to address problems or issues they may be able to help solve. 


What are the advantages of ethnographic research in healthcare?

Ethnography in healthcare has a wide range of advantages in the field of medical market research.

Identifying unexpected issues, challenges, and pain points

Ethnographic research allows deep insight into the realities of usage and experience that traditional research methodologies might miss. 

For example, if a healthcare technology company is launching a new remote patient monitoring system, 1-1 interviews might provide positive user feedback based on initial impressions or single usage events. 

However, an ethnographic study, which involves observing the day-to-day usage of the system over time, might uncover that users struggle with connecting the device to their home Wi-Fi or find the user interface challenging. 

These real-world insights can significantly improve product development roadmaps, helping to overcome and shape products to effectively meet user needs. 


Experiencing the process, problem, or interaction with the respondent

Traditional research methods, such as surveys or interviews can be incredibly effective as part of a comprehensive qualitative research project. However, they can be limited by the fact they rely on a set of predefined questions, and the fact that they capture respondents' thoughts or opinions at one point in time. 

Ethnographic research can provide an additional dimension to qualitative research by allowing researchers to directly observe behaviors, interactions, and processes as they happen in real-time.

It provides a higher level of understanding of user challenges, workflows, and existing solutions. This depth of insight is vital when developing new healthcare technologies or improving existing products.


Seeing how users interact with technology in their natural environment

In the everyday environment where healthcare solutions are used, there are a number of factors that can influence how individuals interact with medical devices or services - such as the age of users, the family support available, confidence in technology, individual habits, or culture. 

Ethnography in healthcare can provide a more accurate picture of interactions with medical devices across a diverse breadth of user experiences. 

For example, observing how elderly patients interact with a digital health app in their homes may reveal the influence of factors such as manual dexterity, technological literacy, and even the need for support from family members, which is important to take into account. These factors may not be as relevant for younger patients.

This in-depth understanding of how diverse groups interact with products and services in their natural environment can feed into product design, ensuring suitability for real-world use.


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The major challenges of ethnography in healthcare

Ethnography can be an incredibly useful research methodology, but it’s also complex and has its own inherent challenges. This is one of the reasons why we’d typically recommend partnering with a medical research specialist for any ethnographic studies. 

Meeting GDPR compliance, getting permissions, and ensuring privacy

Organizing an ethnographic study that involves direct observation of patients or healthcare professionals going about their day-to-day routines is going to capture sensitive personal data. 

To help protect the privacy of research subjects and ensure compliance with legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it’s important to be clear about the scope of the study at the outset and obtain all the necessary permissions before you begin research. 

Navigating the legal and ethical complexities of ethnography in healthcare requires experience and expertise in healthcare market research. At IDR Medical, we have over a decade of experience in medical research and can provide reassurance that the critical subject of data privacy will be handled meticulously and rigorously.


Can be time-consuming and expensive

Ethnographic research can be a time-intensive process, largely due to the depth and breadth of the research method and the robust privacy procedures that need to be implemented.

This can make ethnographic research more costly compared to more traditional qualitative research methods.


Being impractical or not feasible at the site of care

Performing ethnography in a healthcare setting can come with unique challenges. 

For example, some situations might not be feasible for independent observation, such as life-threatening emergencies or cases involving sensitive medical conditions.  It is important that the researcher can observe the respondent, and in many cases this is not feasible in the healthcare environment.

Ethnographic research needs to be completed in a way that doesn’t compromise patient comfort and dignity, which is why it’s important to choose a partner that has extensive experience in the field. 


IDR Medical: How we use ethnography in our medical market research

For ethnography to be effective in healthcare market research, it’s important to partner with a research company that can ensure:

  • The project is well-designed
  • The best-quality respondents are selected
  • The most actionable insights are produced
  • Internal bias is avoided

At IDR Medical, we’ve conducted ethnographic research projects in more than 30 countries and ensure that our research methodology covers the following four steps: 


Framing the research

The foundation of a successful research project is to establish clear objectives for the study and have an agreement on the overall project goal that you want to achieve from the research. 

For any ethnographic research project we manage, the team at IDR Medical reviews your existing data and user feedback and develops a structured set of internal hypotheses to be explored and validated in the study. 

This may be known issues, such as feedback on the ease of use of a product or service, or unknowns such as how usage of a product differs in a home environment compared to a medical setting. 


Define the project scope

The sample size in ethnography is typically a lot smaller than in traditional market research methodologies, such as in-depth interviews or online surveys.  

In ethnography in healthcare, the focus is on quality rather than quantity, as this is necessary to ensure an effective in-depth understanding of subject behavior, attitudes, and usage patterns. 

With a smaller sample size, the identification and recruitment of participants for the study is a critical process - especially if your product is used by multiple different demographics and user groups.

This is where an experienced research company can help you determine the most effective participants to help deliver the insights and objectives outlined in the first framing stage. 


Conduct the ethnographic portion of your research

There are a variety of ways to conduct an insightful ethnographic study. 

The methods and activities used will be determined by your overall research objective and the scope of your research - methods for observing healthcare professionals at work will differ from observing the usage of medical devices by patients at home for example.

IDR Medical has significant experience in planning and implementing a wide range of ethnographic methods, such as role-playing a patient's experience during a consultation, or conducting observational tours of healthcare facilities.

We’re also adept at the implementation of digital ethnography methodologies, such as video diaries which can bring significant time and cost savings, and are also easier to ensure compliance with GDPR regulations.


Analyze all the data to identify key opportunities

The final step in a successful ethnographic study consists of gathering and analyzing all data to identify patterns among respondents and provide a clear report on the factors influencing user behavior. 

The format and ease of understanding of the research outcomes are essential to enable teams across the businesses to identify opportunities for product or service development and plan strategies to put market research recommendations into action. 


What’s next? Digital ethnographic research

Ethnographic research has the ability to provide unique insights that traditional healthcare market research methodologies such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups may overlook.

Including ethnography in healthcare as part of your research process can uncover additional opportunities to evolve and adapt products and drive innovation.

In recent years, ethnography as a research method has also been on its own journey of evolution and development. The rise of digital technologies has been instrumental in encouraging patient self-management, and the restrictions that remain in place following the COVID-19 pandemic have made traditional ‘in-person’ observational ethnography in a medical setting an increasingly complex landscape. 

IDR Medical is at the forefront of finding creative and digital alternatives to traditional ethnography that still achieve the research goal of immersing ourselves in the real lives of respondents and observing behaviors and interactions in authentic settings.

Innovative techniques, such as video diaries and video interviews, are not only effective as ethnographic research methods, but they can also solve some of the major challenges of traditional ethnography, by:

  • Reducing the amount of time that is needed to conduct an ethnographic study
  • Reducing the cost of ethnographic research
  • Ensuring compliance with GDPR guidelines 

IDR Medical are experts in both traditional and digital ethnography with more than a decade of experience running research projects across more than 30 countries. 

Ready to find out more about how IDR Medical can implement ethnographic research to help you uncover actionable customer insight?


Download our FREE guide to using ethnography in medical market research


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