Using focus groups to gather patient insight

Focus groups are great when you want to explore more complicated or sensitive topics. Focus groups encourage patients to share views, bounce ideas off each other and engage in constructive debate. This can uncover perspectives and ideas that may not surface by speaking with patients individually.


Developing your session plan

You and the people you involve will get the most from the focus group if you thoroughly plan and prepare. To do this we recommend developing a detailed session plan. This will help ensure your questions and activities link to your involvement aims and objectives. Make sure you and your colleagues are clear about how the focus group will run and everyone’s roles and responsibilities.

When developing your session plan remember:

  • your focus group can run between 2 and 6 hours
  • you can recruit between 6 and 12 people
  • if you need to collect insights from more patients you can hold multiple focus groups at various locations/times
  • you should focus on roughly 1 core topic to explore per hour
  • allow enough time for patients to answer fully, ask questions and take breaks
  • use a variety of activities and discussion stimuli to keep people engaged

Structuring your session plan

You can use this format to structure your session plan:

  1. Welcome and introductions (put the patient at ease and set expectations for the day)
  2. Icebreaker
  3. Provide a brief overview of your research
  4. Explain why you’re involving patients and how you’ll use their insights
  5. Deliver your series of activities and group discussions to gather insights
  6. Explain what the next steps are and when can they expect an update on how you used their responses

Here’s a template and example session plan with more guidance you can use to write yours.

Choosing a date and time

Avoid using significant dates that might affect whether people can attend the focus group. A significant date could be a religious event, a major sporting event or school holidays. This could also mean holding your focus group after hours or on the weekend if your target audience has responsibilities during working hours. 

It’s good practice to shortlist a few days and times that you are available and ask the patients to select what works best for them. Try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible.

Choosing a location

We recommend choosing a venue that allows cabaret style seating. It should have enough room for attendees to move around for activities and space for food and beverages. Check your venue is close to public transport options and has accessible entrances. You should consult with the patients you recruit to find out any accessibility or mobility issues you will need to accommodate.

Facilitators and scribes

We recommend nominating one key facilitator to manage the overall focus group. They will be responsible for keeping the whole group to time, making sure groups move between activities on time and ensure everyone sticks to the ground rules. Then have a facilitator on each table to help manage small group discussions. These facilitators can take notes, or you can assign additional scribes to each table.

Set ground rules

Ground rules can help you run a smooth focus group by defining what behaviours are expected. Having ground rules makes it easier to moderate disruptive behaviour and ensure everyone gets a chance to contribute. Here’s a template set of ground rules you can use and amend. You can send these in advance in their pre-read materials and give everyone the opportunity to comment or add to at the start of the focus group.

Break the ice

Start the focus group with an ice breaker to get people warmed up and ready for the day. This will also help people start to get to know each other and feel more comfortable engaging in the focus group.

It’s important to choose the right icebreaker for your audience and involvement method. Icebreakers can be between 15-30 minutes. See some example ice breaker activities here.


Picking the right questions

Think about what type of questions will help you get the insights you need.

Think about your respondents

When writing a question, ask yourself whether the respondents:

  • can understand the question
  • will be able to answer the question
  • will be willing to answer the question
  • will be led to answer the question in a certain way

If you need the patients to understand some topics before your focus group, to get their feedback on that, you can include it in your pre-read materials or explain it during your focus group.  

Be clear

Make the questions easy to understand and be explicit with what you mean.

There shouldn’t be room for interpretation, remember:

  • not all respondents will understand the question in the same way
  • don't be afraid to use definitions or give examples (e.g. a biopsy is a medical procedure where a small sample of body tissue is removed so it can be examined under a microscope.)
  • to follow the guidelines for writing for a lay audience

Keep them engaged

If you want patients to participate fully in your focus group, you need to keep them engaged. Get as creative and interactive as you can when gathering insights. Use activities and discussion stimuli as much as you can. These techniques will help keep patients engaged but also help explore ideas in different ways. Here are some examples you can use.

You can also periodically mix up groups to keep the conversation fresh and reenergise people. You can do this at random (assign people a number) or by topic themes (people move to their preferred or assigned topic).

Question order matters

Question order is important to engage attendees and ease them into the discussion. Questions should be ordered in a logical sequence and start broad before moving on to the more specific or sensitive questions. Think about whether the content of a question could influence how respondents answer subsequent questions.

Be objective

When you are talking with patients they shouldn’t be able to tell your opinion. Make sure questions are balanced, neutral, and don’t lead respondents to answer in a certain way. You should watch out for any non-verbal cues that might make the patients feel like you approve or disapprove of certain answers.

Be aware of groupthink

Groupthink is where individuals agree with the groups’ or individuals’ opinions, often without voicing their own. This is sometimes an effort to maintain harmony or a belief that their idea isn’t as good. There are many techniques to help you avoid groupthink. One is asking people to write their ideas on post it notes individually before sharing with the wider group for discussion.

Be sensitive

The people attending your focus group may be very close to their cancer experience. Sensitivity is important. Try not to ask questions that have risk of offending or upsetting your audience. It can be difficult discussing cancer experiences so it’s important all attendees and staff are being sensitive and respectful to each other’s personal experiences.

Recruiting to your patient involvement activity

Once you've planned your method, read on for more information about recruiting patients to your patient involvement activity.

Recruiting to your patient involvement activity