7 Questions for Successful Concept Testing with Healthcare Professionals

“Studies have found that, for every dollar spent on journal advertising, pharma can expect a return of 3–5 dollars on their investment.1

7 Questions for Successful Concept Testing

“Traditional print-based advertising in medical journals is an attractive option for pharmaceutical companies, with a reach of 90% of physicians with print and 96% with print and digital versions together.2

“…hundreds of medical marketers make NEJM the cornerstone of their advertising programs. For medical marketers worldwide, there is no greater assurance that your ad will be seen, read, and acted upon.3

Some of the most important qualitative interviews conducted are with medical and clinical professionals. An hour with a teaching hospital oncologist is more difficult to schedule, more expensive, and arguably, has a greater impact than simply asking a consumer about her preference for laundry detergent. Crafting advertising to healthcare professionals is serious stuff! And the best way to gauge the success of an ad is to seek out input from the target audience.

In my 25+ years of qualitative research with healthcare professionals, concept testing has proven to be the least favorite interview subject. I’ve heard, “I’m not an art director,” and “I really don’t like these types of interviews,” numerous times. In many cases this subject has elicited eyerolls, sighs, and groans.

Dedicated to Science, Not Marketing Concepts

People who have dedicated over a decade of their late adolescent and young adult lives to the study of medicine and pharmacology are different than the rest of us. While most of us in our undergraduate years were wondering what we’d be when we grew up, these folks knew their path and plowed ahead.

They toiled away in biology labs examining cellular respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis, and meiosis, instead of looking for meaning in a tomato soup can for ‘American Art in the 20th Century.’ They eschewed courses such as ‘Positive Psychology,’ instead taking ‘Principles of Statistical Inference.’ Needless to say, few of these would-be neurosurgeons and oncology pharmacists took a year after graduation to ”find themselves” while skiing at Whitefish in Montana.

And yet, we ask the people least likely to have taken ‘Creative Writing’ or ‘The Psychology of Advertising,’ which of 4-5 pithy phrases is ”most convincing of value.” These folks who didn’t have the bandwidth to take ‘Photography for the Beginner’ or ‘Introduction to Acrylics’ are recruited to give their opinion as to what design paired with the forementioned convincing pithy phrase “is most impactful,” or “would catch your eye in JAMA.”

This isn’t to say that dermatologists, nurse practitioners, and dentists can’t be creative. However, they have pursued careers where their skills have been learned by revering statistical significance and validity, not imaginative one-offs. But for a few years I repeatedly designed discussion guides that tapped into their clinical—not creative—selves. I remember asking questions about phrases and designs and getting unsatisfying responses like, “Oh, I don’t know. None of the phrases is better than the other,” “I don’t look at the ads in JAMA/NEJM anyway,” and “Maybe change the color of the butterfly?”

Ask Silly Questions!

It occurred to me that by asking questions that encourage the retrieval of pleasant, relaxing, even humorous memories or thoughts, medical professionals would be more likely to tap into their creative sides. Encouraging inventive responses, probing for visual aspects of memories, and allowing medical professionals to make up hypothetical, inventive, even silly answers, loosens up even the most staid physicians.

And I learned NOT to announce upfront (or at any time, for that matter) that we'd be doing 'concept testing.'

Seven Questions That Can Unlock the Creative Sides of Healthcare Professionals

The following are questions that I’ve asked physicians of all ilks, psychologists and mental health workers, hospital and retail pharmacists, NPs and PAs, occupational and physical therapists. Some have been visibly disarmed by the questions, even giggling and laughing, which allowed them to use a less clinical, more expansive vocabulary and suggest design changes as if they were art directors.

  1. If you could go back to college, what course would you take that you didn’t while you were following the recommended pre-med course of study? If the physician is stymied, suggest fictitious/humorous ‘Films of the 1970’s’ or ‘Egyptian Antiquities’ or ‘The Psychology of Baseball’
    Reasoning: Have medical professional imagine other paths of study s/he could have followed.
  2. If you couldn’t be a physician/pharmacist/NP/PA, etc., what occupation would you choose outside of healthcare?
    Reasoning: Perhaps elicit more creative occupations s/he would have considered.
  3. What do you do better than most of your peers? And don’t be bashful about bragging!
    Reasoning: Remind participant of her/his strengths, build confidence and curiosity as to the objective of the research
  4. What would be your perfect vacation? And don’t let cost limit your imagination! (Probe for location, activities, food, etc.)
    Reasoning: Have medical professional retrieve visual memories of pleasurable, relaxing times or imagine a wonderful place, things they’d do, how they’d dress, etc.
  5. What do you wish more patients would do in their appointment time with you?
    Reasoning: Tap into medical professional’s unmet needs, which will undoubtedly be part of concept and copy.
  6. Why is your best friend your best friend?
    Reasoning: Hopefully elicit adjectives of reliability, trustworthiness, problem-solving, steadfastness, etc.
  7. What non-pharmaceutical or non-invasive therapy that you’ve recommended do you wish more of your patients would take advantage of? (For example, exercise, physical therapy, occupational therapy, chiropractic care, dietitian, mental health care, or acupuncture)
    Reasoning: Get medical professional thinking about possible improvements to existing therapies (assumes concept is about new pharmaceutical or technology).

After a few or all of these questions, I then say to the healthcare professional that I want them to keep those visual cues in mind and use the same adjectives they’ve used to describe best friends and great vacations, and also remember their wistfulness around unfulfilled needs to “evaluate art and language” in a few examples that I’m going to show them.

*Note: Concept testing is most effective when a technology is utilized which allows the participant to physically move elements of a concept/change artwork, etc. on a white board, or when an online participant is allowed to digitally move elements by sharing the screen.

Judge for yourself if you don’t receive more thoughtful, more useful responses by employing the inquiry process described above.

  1. Gettings J, O’Neill B, Chokshi DA, et al. Differences in the volume of pharmaceutical advertisements between print general medical journals. PLoS One 2014;9:e84790
  2. Sinha M, Kesselheim A, Darrow J. Pharmaceutical advertising in medical journals. Chest 2018;153:9–11
  3. New England Journal of Medicine. “How to Advertise”


Pamela Waite

Pamela Waite

Qualitative Consultant

Pamela Waite has been providing strategic direction with qualitative research to healthcare, educational, and charitable organizations for over 25 years. She specializes in uncovering and describing the behavioral, cognitive, and psychological components that inform decision-making. Dr. Waite received her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Counseling and Consulting Psychology from Harvard University. She also holds an MBA from Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim Business School.

Copyright © 2023 by Decision Analyst, Inc.
This posting may not be copied, published, or used in any way without written permission of Decision Analyst.