The Right Approach for Your Physician Survey

By: David F. Zirkle, PhD

[box]“To understand the man, you must first walk a mile in his moccasins.” – North American Indian Proverb[/box]

Barlow/McCarthy regularly conducts research to gather insights and capture the “voice of the physician.”  In today’s evolving health care landscape, building strong physician relationships is crucial to achieving success.

However, conducting research with physicians can be much different than surveying the general population.  Because physicians have demanding work schedules, are frequently approached to participate in surveys and have “gatekeepers,” it’s often difficult to contact them directly. That’s why, when you get their attention, you have to be ready with the right approach.

Following are some of the advantages and disadvantages to different approaches used in conducting research with physicians.

Surveys are a cost-effective method for collecting large amounts of information in a short period of time.  While traditional mail and telephone surveys are still used, the lower cost and simpler logistics of web-based or email surveys make them an advantageous (and an accepted) way to reach out to physicians.


  • Email surveys are an effective way of collecting information; plus, large samples do not cost much more beyond the expense of acquiring the sample.
  • A broad range of data can be collected, e.g. attitudes, opinions, beliefs, values, behaviors and factual information.
  • Web-based questionnaires can include complex question-skipping logic, randomizations and other features, such as visuals and sound files.
  • The convenience of an email survey often stimulates higher response rates than mail or telephone methods.
  • Automation permits the results to be analyzed quickly and objectively (compared to other research in many cases).


  • A list of email addresses must be developed or purchased.
  • Many physicians dislike unsolicited email even more than regular mail or telephone surveys.
  • Results cannot be generalized to whole populations since respondents may differ from those who do not respond, thus web-based surveys may result in greater response bias compared to telephone surveys.

Individual interviews are designed to gather in-depth information in a personalized and comfortable setting.  Because individual interviews can be very expensive, face-to-face meetings are often combined with telephone calls to reduce costs.


  • Detailed information about personal feelings, perceptions and opinions can be obtained.
  • Questions can be tailored and the precise meaning of responses clarified with follow-up questions.
  • Print, visuals and other materials can be displayed to gauge reactions and opinions from the respondents.
  • Respondents are not as likely to be influenced by others in a group setting.
  • Trained interviewers can also observe non-verbal cues from respondents.


  • Interviews can be very time consuming and costly, because they require scheduling, interviewing, transcribing, analyzing, reporting, etc.
  • Face-to-face interviews can present challenges when the target group is geographically dispersed.
  • Interviewer training and preparation is necessary to ensure subject matter knowledge, minimize bias and ensure consistent recording of responses.
  • Respondents can feel uneasy about the confidentiality of their responses when interacting directly with interviewers.

Group discussions or focus groups are one of the oldest forms of market research.  Typically 8 to 12 participants are brought together from a target population and interviewed in an interactive manner. Recently, in order to reduce research costs, online group discussions with physicians have become much more common.


  • Online focus groups can drastically decrease costs by eliminating travel expenses, facility rental, audio/video recording, transcription services, etc.
  • There are no geographic restrictions — you can recruit and reach respondents from anywhere in the world with Internet access. In addition, the survey group can be larger than the traditional 8 to 12 participants.
  • Participants are anonymous, which may encourage more open and honest feedback.
  • Results can be determined quickly since transcripts are immediately available and highly accurate.


  • In traditional focus groups, the moderator uses the reactions of the group to direct the discussion.  Without these group dynamics, valuable insights can be missed.
  • Without visual or auditory cues, it is more difficult to gauge the emotional reactions of the participants.
  • Anonymity of the online group can lead to dishonesty or misrepresentation.
  • Without the traditional “two-way mirror,” it is more difficult for the client and moderator to discuss the session progress and make adjustments in real time.

To learn more about Barlow/McCarthy and our Physician Research capabilities, please contact us at