The Healthcare Research Industry in Australia

The health sector is a growing part of the research industry in Australia. While there have been just a few of the major market research companies that specialize in primary market research for the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry (as evidenced in the 2006 AMSRS Directory and Yearbook), in recent years international and home grown agencies have been setting up their own healthcare divisions in the Australian market.  Additionally boutique healthcare and pharmaceutical agencies are also growing in number.  This growth has led to a number of challenges and opportunities for the market research industry.  There are a number of issues that market researchers and research buyers should take into account when commissioning research in Australia.

A highly targeted group:

Healthcare/pharmaceutical research often involves doctors and medical specialists.  Across Australia, the universe of General Practitioners(GPs) and specialists is rather small. Australia wide there are about 21,200 GPs and much smaller  populations of medical specialists.  For instance, Cardiologists form one of the larger groups – 652 across the country.  There are some medical specialties where the universe size is less than 300 – Oncologists – 289; Rheumatologists – 239; Gynaecologists – 194 and Haemotologists – just 98 in number (source: Australian Medical Directory 2006).

Given the small size of the universe of doctors and specialists, this group, many researchers attest tend to be ‘over researched’.

Highly incentivized:

Due to limited and small population sizes plus their demanding work and patient loads, many doctors and specialists in the field command premium incentives for their time and effort.  They can pick and choose which surveys they do and expect to be incentivised.

While there are no formal guidelines on this issue, there exist norms which are followed by research agencies.  Some researchers pay the doctors as per doctors’ consultation fees and generally amounts up to and not usually beyond what they would earn in the same period of time. Levels of incentives given out are determined by the type of medical specialties. For example, Oncologists or Cardiologists are likely to be paid higher incentives than other doctors.

While the incentives paid out to GPs are closer to their consultation charges, those paid out to the specialists, however are lower. The incentive amount is also influenced by the doctors’ level of expertise and experience – those considered key opinion leaders would command higher incentives.

Besides offering cash incentives, some researchers also give the doctors the option to donate the amount to charity.

High costs of incentives is making fieldwork in healthcare research rather expensive and proving to be a deterrent amongst many pharmaceutical companies.

Not representative:

While there are “panels” of doctors advertised by agencies, many of these are just databases of doctors.  These databases may be skewed as they may not represent busy, high prescribing practitioners who are the bread and butter of research in this area.

Disproportionately metro based:

The universe of doctors and medical specialists is not just small but is disproportionately metro based.  This fact puts even more pressure on the regional/rural doctors when they are to be taken as respondents in a research study.  The rural/regional group being scarce is over-worked and over-researched.  Given this scenario, many a times, a higher lead time is required to conduct research amongst them.

Clients from outside of Australia:

Due to lack of local knowledge on the medical fraternity and local conditions, clients from overseas often request unachievable and inappropriate sample – for example a sample of 200 Rheumotologists would be difficult to obtain, given that the universe contains just over 230 Rheumatologists. Sometimes the clients also set unrealistic quota and screening requirements on variables like length of practice, number of patients seen, number of scripts initiated or ongoing etc. due to lack of sufficient knowledge. For instance, the minimum set on number of patients seen is many a times is rather high according to the Australian standards, where there are stringent norms on how many patients doctors can see in a set time.

The challenge:

The challenge for research agencies lies in reaching the medical professionals for market research. Research agencies have protocols and processes to efficiently manage this small universe and to deal with the gatekeepers to finally reach their target audience.  Achieving high respondent conversion rates is critical in managing of medical research projects. Agencies communicate to their respondents the benefits of participation in the research and get respondent participation not only through providing incentives to their respondents but also by sometimes sharing the research findings with them.

Providing training to the interviewers and moderators is of utmost importance when conducting research in this field. Having a comprehensive understanding of medical jargon and terminology is absolutely vital to obtain good information from the target. To ensure this research agencies invest time and resources in providing appropriate training in the area.  In medical research it takes a relatively long time (especially when compared to consumer research) for agencies to build a team of experienced interviewers and moderators.  And for these research agencies it takes an even longer time to establish their credibility and credentials amongst the medical fraternity.

In medical research (as in any other research area), market research agencies are expected to adhere to policies related to privacy and confidentiality when conducting medical research.