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Research shows medical publication ‘listens’

Medical Economics, a magazine published by Medical Economics Co. Inc., Oradell, N.J., isn’t just interested in reporting on medical topics. The magazine also conducts extensive research to find out what matters to the medical community.

Author: Quirk’s Staff
“We’re Ready To Listen,” reads the headline from an ad of a nationally-known medical magazine.
“For over 60 years, we’ve been tuned in to the concerns of office based physicians. Through surveys and interviews, we’ve heard from thousands of doctors…Whatever you have to say we’re ready to listen.”Medical Economics, one of several magazines published by Medical Economics Co., Inc., (MECI), Oradell, N.J., states in its house advertisement, it’s more than just interested in reporting and writing on medical subjects. It’s willing and eager to know from its readers in the medical community what they want to read and what they think of the editorial content and of its advertising.But that interest doesn’t stop at “Letters to the Editors.” The company goes one big step farther by conducting full-scale market research: Personal interviews, focus groups, telephone interviews, mail surveys, ad testing and follow-up feedback studies.

Research, the bulk of which is handled in-house, is conducted for all 13 of MECI’s publications such as Medical Economics, Drug Topics, Medical Laboratory Observer and Medical Laboratory Products. Additionally, research is conducted for the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR), a large drug description text which is published annually by the company and distributed free to 450,000 physicians nationally.


Over the last two years, focus groups have been conducted in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York City and Philadelphia for the PDR, says Charlette E. Sibley, research director at MECI. Physicians are asked to recommend ways MECI can make the publication better in terms of its size, print, in updating it and how to improve the flow of information to readers. They are also asked about the manual’s existing and potential new product ideas.

Medical Economics, which provides non-clinical information from syndicated surveys on practice management and financial subjects, is the most widely read journal by physicians, claims Sibley. MECI plans to conduct a series of four focus groups periodically for this publication. The first series was conducted in April, 1985, and the second a year later.

The first one involved physicians under 39 years of age to find out if their needs for non-clinical information differed from the older physicians. One focus group was conducted in Pennsylvania and one each in New Orleans, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

Research showed their needs do differ, says Sibley. For example, the younger physicians pointed out that because they’re still paying off medical school debts, they can’t benefit as much from an article such as “How to Invest Your Money.” Also, instead of articles about Mazerrati’s or Jaguars, cars that perhaps their older counterparts can afford, they wanted to see articles featuring Hondas and Toyotas.

The second series of focus groups were conducted in Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco and involved female physicians, also under 39 years of age. These focus groups were conducted to find out if their non-clinical needs differed from their male colleagues. Again, the difference was in age and had little to do with sex. But unlike men, these women struggle with the general professional problems other out-of-the-home working women face.

As a result of the first series of focus groups and also an in-depth mail survey, MECI began featuring a regular, four?five page section in its magazine called, “Getting Down to Basics.”

“It’s been a very successful feature,” says Sibley. “It’s geared toward younger physicians with information and to older physicians as a refresher.”

“Continuing Survey”

A Continuing Survey is also conducted once a year for Medical Economics magazine. Approximately 30,000 questionnaires are mailed to physicians in late January asking them a variety of questions on such things as the fees they charge, their yearly gross and net income and their practice receipts. The results are tabulated and developed into 8-10 lengthy articles filled with tables of data such as the breakdown of their income by specialty, region of the country and a variety of other variables. Narrative articles based on the findings from the survey are also featured.

Focus groups are also conducted with pharmacists for the company’s Drug Topics and Hospital Pharmacist Report magazines. Laboratorians are used in focus groups as well for Medical Laboratory Observer and Medical Laboratory Products. The purpose for these focus groups is to assess reactions to the journals and improve the magazines.


A regular part of the research function is to do follow-up studies on the publications’ editorial content and advertising.

“The purpose of the Issue Feedback studies is to get our readers’ reaction to particular issues, to get an idea of what’s read and not read and to get article ideas,” explains Sibley. “We find out what subjects are near and dear to our readers.”

The feedback studies have shown that physicians are really interested in reading about subjects such as malpractice, tax reform and health care competition (health maintenance organizations and preferred provider organizations).

“It’s a selling point for our sales people to be able to go to an advertiser and point out that we conduct follow-up research studies on our publications to make sure we’re providing the reader with subject material he or she wants to read. When we give readers what they want, there’s a strong chance they’ll read our magazine and then the advertiser can be assured that their ad will get good exposure.”

Aided recall

MECI uses an “aided recall” technique for the Issue Feedback studies to do follow-up research on 11 of the company’s publications. This involves distributing an in-house direct mail survey to approximately 600-800 physicians nationally. Included is a short letter from the editor asking the respondent for assistance in the study. Sibley says the goal is to get a minimum of 100 physicians to respond.

On the questionnaire is a reproduction of the cover of the most recent issue of the publication. The questionnaire cites all particular articles from this issue and asks if the respondent has read the articles in full or in part, intends to read them, how long the respondent will spend reading them and how often the respondent picks up the publication.

Post-tests are also conducted for scheduled advertisers, says Sibley. A mail questionnaire is sent to a randomly selected sample chosen from the circulation list. When the results are in, the advertiser is given a bound report which, among other things, tells how much the ad was read and what the readers’ perceptions are of the advertiser.

Mail surveys

While the mail survey technique may enable MECI to ask lengthy, detailed questions and assure the respondents’ anonymity, it has its drawbacks.

It’s more impersonal, requires a longer turnaround time and the fact that it does involve long, complicated questions, says Sibley, requires the respondents to take time to wade through it.

“That’s why we try to keep it to two-pages and a maximum of four-pages.”

The sight of a long questionnaire is reason enough for respondents to toss it out, thus lowering the response rate. But the respondents’ personal interest in the subject matter as well as the incentive and “lots of other unknowns,” are factors which determine whether or not the respondent will take the time to fill it out, says Sibley.

Since medical personnel are inundated with surveys, MECI encourages them to respond by always including an incentive such as money or the opportunity for them to donate money to a specific charity. “This is what we call a ‘guilt incentive.”‘ says Sibley.

MECI takes time and effort to make the mail questionnaires aesthetically pleasing: More check-off questions than open-ended, more white space, quality paper and a hand-stamped envelope to make it more personal and to help distinguish it from third-class mail.

Telephone surveys

When MECI conducts telephone surveys among physicians and non-physicians, and which they do for projects that are corporate in nature or acquisition oriented, they try to keep the interview to five minutes. If it is a physician, the interviewer always asks if it’s a convenient time to conduct the interview but if not, can it be rescheduled at a more convenient time.

“You’ve got to be careful not to infringe on their time; you don’t want to alienate them,” warns Sibley. The manner in which the physician is treated and approached often makes or breaks the chance the physician will participate in future research.

This is especially true when it comes to “truth in packaging,” says Sibley.

“Physicians should be told what the real reason is for the study. Often times a company will conduct a focus group giving the impression it’s for research purposes when it’s really a sales objective. That’s very uncomfortable for us because our purpose is always just for research. We try to keep it clean and point out that it’s not a sales technique but for research or editorial purposes. When research is disguised and actually is a sales device, the participants’ refusal to be surveyed is justified.”

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