A clean bill of health?
A rural Health Authority wished to explore the best ways to obtain and respond to the views of local people on topical issues. Could useful feedback be obtained by regular focus group discussions with local residents?
- To recruit a panel of 12 local residents. They needed to demographically represent the population of a small market town in the Authority’s area
- To establish the willingness of panel members to meet regularly
- To confirm their ability to contribute useful views on two selected topics
Health authority market research needs to be handled sensitively. We invited a random sample of residents to join the panel. We then selected a panel of 12 members to be broadly representative of the local population. They did not need to have specialist medical knowledge or recent experience of hospitals or GPs.
The panel met on two occasions in a local hotel. Both discussions were moderated by our Managing Director and attended by a representative of the Health Authority. The latter’s role was to make the panel aware, where appropriate, of current practices. However, they were not to give any indication of what was perceived to work well or badly.
The first discussion concerned local health needs in relation to the role of the local community hospital. All 12 panel members attended this. The second panel considered acceptable waiting times for hospital operations. 11 panel members were present at this panel.
Briefing notes were issued in advance of each discussion. For example, before the waiting lists discussion we asked whether certain types of operation and/or certain types of patient be given priority over others? If so, which?
The report of the findings generated considerable interest. We were asked to extend the study by convening similar discussions with members of the local Community Health Panel. We then compared their views with those of the local residents. Eight Community Health Council members took part in discussions on the same two topics. Our Managing Director again acted as moderator. He steered the discussion to cover broadly the same points covered by the local residents.
The research had been a pilot to establish how a panel could usefully contribute their views. We suggested future groups should be made up of two or more smaller local resident panels, each of about half the size of the original. This would allow a consistency check on the views expressed and a greater depth of discussion. We also reported how the presence of a Health Authority representative led to panel members addressing their questions to the representative rather than develop their own views.
Both panels were felt to have contributed usefully to aspects of the medical decision-making process. The general public was detached from the medical process and potentially more able to make criticisms. The Health Community Panel brought background knowledge of current procedures and what was realistic.