Why Pharma Ethnography is a Critical Investment

Alice in Wonderland

In the 1951 Disney adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, our protagonist finds herself in a bit of a predicament. Eager to catch the White Rabbit as he scurries off, Alice is too large to squeeze through the door to continue her pursuit. In frustration, she calls out to the doorknob, “I simply must get through!” The doorknob replies, “Sorry, you’re much too big. Simply impassible.” Confused, Alice responds, “You mean impossible?” Doorknob: “No, impassible. Nothing’s impossible.”

Impassible versus impossible. It’s easy to see how Alice was confounded by these two very similar looking and sounding words. However, the dialogue between the doorknob and Alice is more than clever wordplay; it’s sage advice. If a path meets an obstacle, change the perspective and try again. Seemingly impassible problems are opportunities for adaptation, creative thinking and novel solutions.

Pharma’s Impassible Ethnography Problem?

The pharmaceutical industry finds itself in the midst of a seemingly impassible problem. Unlike its cousins in consumer packaged goods, automotive and technology (among others), pharma has historically lagged behind on its use of ethnographic research. Deficits in its use may be attributed to a general lack of knowledge regarding the methodology itself or ways in which the method may be applied to generate valuable insights. Pharma executives are reluctant to spend their time and budget on a methodology that they lack confidence will provide demonstrable return on investment above and beyond their traditional research toolkit. Moreover, concerns around privacy, confidentiality and informed consent add an ethical and litigious edge. For many, the methodology simply seems impossible.

Nevertheless, the value of ethnographic research in the pharmaceutical industry has never been greater. Consumers are gaining more and more influence over healthcare product and service selections. At the same time, healthcare initiatives are shifting towards the need to impact positive and sustainable behavior change on the consumer level (e.g., patient adherence, lifestyle programs, etc.). It is paramount to understand the (conscious and subconscious) drivers, barriers and influencers that could affect consumer health decisions and behaviors.

The Value of Pharma Ethnography

Ethnographic research is a rich window into this context. At its most basic, pharma ethnography explores the intersection of daily life and health—the nuances of how belief systems, culture, environment, technology, biology, social context, history and behaviors intertwine, shape and modify how we approach health issues in our everyday lives. It can be used to identify unmet needs (both expressed and observed), to elicit rich narratives into the emotional potential of a product or service, and to investigate ways in which behavior change can be positively influenced. What better way to explore the customer experience than to experience it with them, in their world, in real-time?

Alice, facing a seemingly impossible problem, learned how to shrink her size and fit through the door to continue her adventures in Wonderland. Impassible problems are not impossible; they just require nuanced thinking and an openness to adapt. Pharma ethnography is no different. Approaching ethnography with an open mind and the will to take alternative paths is a critical investment that all healthcare organizations should make.

To learn more, please view our on-demand webinar, Ethnography: Removing Barriers and Making the Most of Insights. Ryan Dawson of Eli Lilly and I share a recent project we executed for Lilly Diabetes, provide tips regarding compliance and offer proven ways to embed the insights throughout your organization.

View the On-Demand Webinar

2 thoughts on “Why Pharma Ethnography is a Critical Investment

  1. It sounds like you are focused on big pharma. I’ve done some “ride alongs” with pharmacists themselves and it’s an insanely complex experience. Much of the work is still manual and their cognitive load is huge almost any time of day with multiple requests – phones ringing, customers at the counter, filling orders and counting pills.
    They have become the most sought after resource due to their accessibility (free and in your local grocery or drugstore).
    That aside…Your article is spot on. It’s an industry that needs to understand the hopes and fears of it’s consumers almost more than any other.

    • I could not agree more Jannak! Thank you so much for sharing your “ride along” experiences. You are absolutely correct — ethnography adds value beyond just big pharma. Imagine trying to grasp all the nuances of those pharmacists’ cognitive (over)load and daily stressors by just asking them about their day-to-day in a focus group. Sure, you’d arrive at some of those tensions, but so much would be lost in translation!

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