Response bias in a captive population

Image by  oswaldoruiz  from Pixabay.

Image by oswaldoruiz from Pixabay.

Many years ago, a former dentist mishandled a common procedure. The dentist said that they would correct it, but after several failed attempts over the course of a year, I realized it was time to part ways and find a new provider.

Despite rave online reviews, the next candidate was either having a bad day or was simply unqualified, so much so that I had to leave mid-appointment or risk more dental mayhem.

If at first you don’t succeed … well, they say failure is a good teacher, so I changed strategies. I called some local dental specialists – my kids’ oral surgeons and orthodontist, and a friend’s oral surgeon. I asked them what dentist they used.

One name was cited several times. That individual is my current dentist. On the first try the dental issue caused by the original dentist was correctly diagnosed and fixed.

Which brings me to market research, in case you’re wondering.

Like many dental practices, my dentist appears to rely primarily on referrals and patient loyalty to keep the appointment pipeline humming. And, like many practices, it uses a third party to administer patient surveys. At one point in time, the practice appeared to be using a product distributor who also administered market research surveys on behalf of dental practices; not sure if that is still the case.

First, let me say that any company that uses market research to survey its own customers is to be commended, as it indicates a willingness to listen, learn and improve operations.

And I enjoy looking at surveys designed by others, both out of curiosity and also because there is always something to be learned.

But I have never taken any of the surveys sent on behalf of my dentist, for one basic reason. There is no way to take the survey anonymously, and indeed, the survey introduction states that my comments may be used for marketing purposes.

You would expect a dentist to be skilled in dentistry, not market research, so this is not a reflection on any dental practice that uses survey research. At least I was warned. But it does raise some questions:

  • As a patient, am I likely to express concerns when there is no assurance of anonymity, with no way of knowing who will be reading the responses?

  • How much bias is created by the survey invitation? Does it discourage people from taking the survey if they have had an issue, and does this stand in the way of the dentist learning valuable insights about the patient experience?

  • Will positive comments be used with attribution? In what context and for how long? Will they be edited?

  • Given that some respondents may opt not to take the survey because of the lack of anonymity, do the completed surveys fairly represent patient views and the patient experience for the practice as a whole?

  • Is the survey data storage and subsequent use HIPAA-compliant?

  • Without knowing anything about its licensing agreement, could the third-party vendor distribute data to others beyond the employees of the patient’s dental practice? To whom and for what purpose?

Market research is a valuable tool, but issues can arise from the way the survey is presented and administered to potential respondents. Understanding these factors going in can result in a better research experience for everyone.

Disclaimer: The information expressed here solely represents the author’s opinions; no one in this article is a client of The QEAN Group, nor are any endorsements made or implied.