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Health is not valued until sickness comes.
– Thomas Fuller
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Recent experience with area hospitals led me to think about some of the parallels between the practices of medicine and market research. A preliminary (and, as it turned out, incorrect) diagnosis of Lyme disease nearly killed my husband in August, reflected in the title of this month’s issue, “When Life Gives You Lyme(s)…”.
But before I explain, I’d like to thank those of you who travelled this difficult journey with us this past summer, and offered your sympathy, advice, and best wishes for my husband’s recovery. We are very grateful for your support and kindness.
When Life Gives You Lyme(s)…
My husband, Dan, takes great care of himself. He religiously works out at the gym, completely eschews red meat and most processed foods, chooses organic foods when possible, and carefully minds his fat intake (well, okay, he does splurge a bit on cheese, he is human, after all). Nearly everyone who meets him notices his robust good health; his friends call him “Tan Dan,” even in the winter, as he always looks relaxed and fit. Thus, it was with a great deal of consternation that, at the beginning of this past summer, we noticed a general decline in his ability to complete simple exercises, such as going upstairs, without pausing to catch his breath.
We tried to ignore the growing indications of a problem until one Saturday morning when he nearly fell down from dizziness. His doctor, who immediately advised taking Dan to the ER, feared a heart attack. After many tests were run, the source of the symptoms was found: An inordinate amount of fluid had built up around Dan’s heart, causing atrial fibrillation and a resulting inability to breathe normally. An emergency cardiac operating team removed more than a pint of fluid from Dan’s chest. Within hours, he was feeling better and was discharged.
Unfortunately, while the medical team expected that to be the end of the problem, especially given Dan’s overall (apparent) good health, it wasn’t. Over the course of the summer, the fluid returned multiple times, at least once more around his heart, and several times around his lungs. Dan spent most of August in hospital after hospital, while test after test was run. No one could diagnose the origin of the inflammation that was causing the fluid build-up, although one doctor was quite confident in her diagnosis of Lyme disease.
I’m very happy to report that while to this day, no diagnosis or origin has been determined, my husband is nearly 100% recovered. We still don’t know why, but Dan responded to a protocol of common anti-inflammatory drugs. While the doctors and we remain mystified by the source of this problem, we can at least say that it appears to be under control.
Of course, this was a worrisome and confusing time in our family, but as the unrepentant research geek that I am, I still managed to note the ways that this ordeal echoed trials and tribulations that many of us have encountered through our careers in market research.
“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”
On one of our first trips back to a hospital after Dan’s initial release, an ER doctor commissioned multiple tests, including several for Lyme disease. We could easily see why: given its proximity to Lyme “ground central” (e.g., Lyme, CT) and to tick-infested areas, such as beaches, this hospital sees thousands of Lyme disease cases every summer.
Unfortunately, and likely because of this experience, the ER doctor diagnosed Dan with Lyme disease, even though the results were inconclusive. Based on her experience and background, she was looking for Lyme, and she found it.
As researchers, how many times do we hear what we think we are looking for, and then stop looking? We hear an idea in a focus group or IDI that supports a hypothesis, and that becomes the lead finding of the study? Justifies a million-dollar investment or kills a promising concept? While granted, such problems aren’t as deadly as an incorrect medical diagnosis, they can certainly kill any hope you may have had of finding out something new or unexpected.
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” – and don’t dismiss her, either
When the ER doctor diagnosed Lyme disease, everyone wanted to take action – as did we. Finally, we understood the cause! Finally, there was an enemy to beat! Finally, the unknown was known! So, we were pleased to be summoned to (another) hospital for an aggressive intravenous antibiotic protocol.
But, there was one infectious disease specialist who didn’t agree with the diagnosis, and warned us so. Running the same tests the ER doctor did, she couldn’t replicate the positive Lyme results. But we wanted a cause, and action, and didn’t like what she had to say, so we discounted it. Got frustrated with it. Resented her reluctance to provide Lyme-aid, as it were.
How often do we treat research results (or the vendor who delivers them) similarly, that is to say, if we don’t like the results, there must be something wrong with how we got them, or with the person/ organization delivering them? The sample is biased, we interviewed the wrong people, the vendor has misinterpreted the data, etc. So we make decisions and take steps based on what we are comfortable with, even if we can’t prove that it’s reliable, and those decisions can be deadly.
When you seek to diagnose, open-ended approaches work best
Dan must have been seen by dozens of doctors, particularly those making hospital rounds. And yet (let me guess, they teach this in medical school), they all asked closed-ended, primarily yes/no questions. Have you been out of the country? Does it hurt when you breathe? Isn’t your nurse handsome (just kidding)? On the advice of friends, many of whom have medical backgrounds, we prepared lists of symptoms, frequencies, intensities, etc., so that when the doctors attempted to diagnose the ailment, we could share our experience. However, any time we tried to share the context we prepared, they stopped the conversation, and said they would “come back for all that,” but never did.
In our research initiatives, when we administer a closed-ended survey instead of allowing our study participants to openly and freely share what is on their minds, are we limiting our ability to understand all the sides of an issue- and thus we come to an incomplete diagnosis? At the very least, do we shut down our study participants, i.e., our customers and prospects, and make them feel disrespected and interrupted?
Here’s the Twist: I learned this summer that there are many similarities between the research professional looking to provide thorough, unbiased, reliable, and memorable research insights and the medical professional looking to cure a patient of a stubborn unidentifiable ailment. While the practice of market research may not have the same “life or death” importance as the practice of medicine, all of us in the research industry need to recall common principles in order to not kill our studies, results, or the identification of great new ideas!
Mixology (Putting Research into Practice)
The steps that we take at CSR to ensure we don’t jump to conclusions on behalf of our clients include:
Insisting, sometimes to the frustration of focus group and IDI attendees/ listeners, that findings not be shared until all the groups and interviews are complete. This is not a popular stance among executives who hear a few ideas in a few hours and then want to “run with” them, but we feel it’s important to let a study run its course before drawing conclusions from it.
Involve as many stakeholders as possible, as early in the initiative as is feasible. This is a step that can add time and a lot of effort, but it pays off over the course of the engagement. It’s a lot harder for those outside the process to criticize the end results if they have been part of major decisions from the initiative’s inception.
If you’re reading this newsletter, you likely know we at CSR prefer open-ended conversations to closed-ended surveys when a choice is possible. We believe this enhances our ability to elicit new ideas and trends, leverage the knowledge of study participants, and keep those participants engaged.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.
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