How To Interview Physicians When You Aren’t An M.D. Yourself
by Pamela Waite
Let’s face it—talking to doctors can be intimidating.They likely were the smartest kids in your high school. They went to school for many years and were mentored for additional years as residents. Collectively, U.S. physicians are probably among our largest pool of smart people.
The average medical school graduate owes $241,600 in total student loan debt, so it’s no wonder they work such long hours. This financial obligation is undoubtedly an incentive, but they spend the years and the money to literally make a difference in people’s lives. They make decisions that affect life and death, disease and disability, recuperation and wellness for their patients.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers, professional medical societies, hospital networks, and all types of media outlets are exceedingly curious about how physicians make tough decisions that have such important consequences. The subjects of their queries of doctors vary widely, but includes things like:
- Why do physicians prescribe Product X instead of Product Y?
- Do they find telehealth an effective way to communicate with patients?
- How have they handled conversations with patients about COVID-19?
Qualitative research can be used to answer these and many other kinds of questions, for a multitude of professions. It can be a solo methodology or an initial step in a hybrid research approach. How well qualitative research works is a function of several factors, but its success especially hinges on how well the moderator communicates with the research participants.
The weight of physicians’ work responsibilities and their collective intelligence can be quite intimidating, even for a seasoned researcher. If you lack experience with interviewing physicians, here are six questions to ask yourself in preparation for an interview:
- How will you introduce yourself? Use a casual but business-like approach, using your full name. Even if you have a Ph.D., do not introduce yourself as “Dr.” Physicians are real doctors to the rest of the world, and you are asking them for their expert medical perspective. Physicians do not want to hear about how many years you slaved over your dissertation, how awful your advisor was, or how many gallons of coffee you mainlined while writing your bibliography.
- Are you willing to ask an offbeat, introductory question? Many physicians who are willing to participate in market research have an elevator speech prepared. They can rattle off the disease states they typically treat, the demographic mix of their patients, and the percentage of commercial, Medicaid, Medicare, and uninsured folks in their practice faster than they can name their own children. After they’ve given you the rehearsed burble, ask them about the most challenging case they’ve had or what it feels like to know they can extend life or pull someone out of the depths of depression. You will relax the physician and help remind the doctor why they got into the profession of medicine in the first place. You might surprise the doctor with your candor, but you will definitely establish him/her as the expert between the two of you.
- Are you willing to say “absolutely not!” to suggestions for a consumer-type approach with physicians? If your target audience is making life and death decisions, don’t even think about asking them what vegetable their patients are most like or what animal your ‘Brand X’ product profile reminds them of.
- Have you done your homework? No one expects a moderator to have the same level of knowledge as an M.D. However, knowing enough about the subject will help facilitate your conversation. With a good grasp of the therapeutic category, for example, you will be able to detect when the conversation is veering off course, and when it may be opening up an important line of inquiry.
- Can you compare the flow of the interview to making a diagnosis? State the client’s objective as if it were the presenting complaint from a patient. For example, your client is coming out with a new product and wants to know how it will fare in the marketplace. You’ll present the product’s research as if they were the results of lab tests or scans, so the physician can mull over the ‘differential diagnosis’–available products in the marketplace. You’ll then be asking for an opinion, a diagnosis of sorts, and assessing how that product can be best used for patients, akin to a treatment decision.
- Have you intentionally designed your discussion guide to be open to new ideas? Some specialties, for example, psychiatrists and oncologists, switch drugs, titrate frequently, and will change therapies as the patient’s condition necessitates. They are creative specialties by nature, but physicians in other fields can surprise you with their protocols, too. A good discussion guide addresses the client’s core business objectives but leaves room for exploration and ‘aha!’ moments. For example, ask the physician for the most creative way he treated a patient, or ask, “What should I ask the next physician that I didn’t ask you?” You can also discover unique information by asking “What do you do differently from most doctors in your field?”
Years ago, I got my ‘aha’ moment from the last physician of eight on my schedule. I was especially interested in talking with him because his patients lived with their disease much longer than usual. After he had answered all of my questions attentively and with great insight, I finally got the chance to ask him what he did that was so different from other oncologists.
He was silent for a moment and his face turned quite pink. He was obviously embarrassed by my question. “Do you really want to know what I do?” he asked.
I assured him that I did.
He said, “I pray with my patients.”
Nowhere in my discussion guide was there a reference to religion or spiritual practice as a research consideration. But I surmised that this physician’s patients kept their appointments, in part, because they were so completely attached to him. They stuck to their chemo schedules, were honest about the side effects they experienced, and followed his guidance about rest, diet, and activity levels. The more I talked with him, the more he confirmed my inference. What I interpreted through a psychological lens, as compliance to best practices, he saw as divine mediation.
Treating physicians as the experts they are, creating a conversation that naturally flows, knowing enough about the clinical issues to probe when needed, and creating room to learn unexpected truths can allow for novel and inspiring results.
*Citation: Hanson, Melanie. “Average Medical School Debt” EducationData.org, December 9, 2021
About the Author
Pamela Waite (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Moderator & Insights Manager on the Qualitative Research Team at Decision Analyst. She may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.
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