Clearly, hospitals and health systems depend on insights to make decisions and inform strategy. Most notably, hospitals invest significant dollars into quantitative data from research companies to help inform a wide swath of marketing and service line strategies. Generally in the form of audience opinion statistics, quantitative insights are leveraged to help hospital marketers with communications planning, competitive assessments, patient retention, market share growth, and other data-driven service line management decisions. While there is certainly value in quantitative data derived from patients and consumers, there is another type of insights that is even more important and powerful for hospitals—qualitative insights

Quantitative and qualitative research work in opposite directions and answer different questions; therefore, they are often portrayed as competing data. In the realm of healthcare marketing, however, understanding the differences between the two allows for a marriage of insights that optimizes marketing strategies and investments and is most beneficial to stakeholders involved: marketers, providers, and patients.

What or Why, and How it Matters

In a paper referenced by Fusch & Ness, a worthwhile distinction can be made when considering data in terms of both rich and thick. As a healthcare marketer, you’ve seen how the advancement of technology has created an influx of thick, digital quantitative insights. Obtained through methods including longitudinal studies, digital surveys, and even text messages, quantitative insights are deductive in nature and measure numerical data—providing an answer to ‘what the marketer is seeking. However, this influx of thick quantitative data has also created an easy trap to fall into where qualitative research is often overlooked, resulting in a lot of thick data that lacks richness. 

For instance, a data set of quantitative insights might include the percentage of patients that sought medical attention via the Emergency Department during COVID-19 compared to the percentage of patients who booked appointments with their provider. In this case, quantitative data could prove the hypothesis that Emergency Department visits dropped during COVID-19 by indicating 22% less patients walked through the doors in the month of Dec. 2020 compared to Dec. 2019.  

While it’s important to recognize the value of this quantitative data, it’s far too easy to take this information and run with it; this is the point in the strategy journey where marketers begin making assumptions. We know the number of patients seeking attention in the Emergency Department dropped during that period, but it’s a critical mistake to assume why. Don’t assume. Instead, enrich quantitative data with qualitative. 

Were patients afraid they would contract COVID-19 in the Emergency Department? If so, why? Were they concerned there would be an influx of patients entering the Emergency Department, thus booked an appointment with their provider instead? Why?

While quantitative research might begin to scratch the surface with online survey tools asking participants to “select the reason(s) why,” it’s imperative the researcher engages the patient (and other stakeholders) on ground level and with extreme empathy using face-to-face qualitative research methods such as ethnography and action-oriented research. As Margaret Mead said, “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” This is one area where digital tools fall short; one must use in-depth interviews and other qualitative methods that seek to understand the density of the patient’s condition, the burden of their disease, clinical path, and treatment in the context of who they are and where they live to truly assimilate their lived experience. Rich qualitative research digs further underneath the numbers to figure out the ‘why’ and to give quantitative data a voice—the voice of the patient. 

Marketing that Moves

Effective marketing messaging begins and ends with the patient stakeholder. The voice of your hospital is inextricably linked to the experiences the patient has of your brand—the experiences you create. If the voice of your brand is grounded solely in one of either quantitative or qualitative data, it runs the risk of being insufficient and will likely be ineffective. Thick quantitative research data provides a starting point for understanding the decisions patients make from 30,000 feet. Rich, nuanced qualitative data allows researchers and marketers to fill in the gaps between the numbers at ground level through Share of Experience™. As a healthcare marketer, if you can marry the data together, then you will have the insights you need to articulate a voice, message, and marketing program that relates to, engages with, educates, and moves the consumer to make more informed decisions. 

Accountability Leads to Elevated Competency 

As healthcare marketers, we have an obligation to produce relevant and engaging content that moves patients to healthier decisions. That said, err on the side of qualitative research when tough decisions need to be made. A marketer’s top priority is always to engage; uncovering the patient voice with qualitative research is the most efficient way to engage with your consumer. Talk like they talk, relate, and they will listen. By engaging, you empower the patient so they can be thankful for you and hold you accountable for taking their time as a marketer. The patient is spending their time reading your content—they deserve to ask for something in return. The best response is content that educates, elevating patient competency so they can be on their way to healthier decision-making. 

The distinctions between thick and rich insights make it easy for marketers to choose one or the other. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a circumstance where a marriage of quantitative and qualitative insights isn’t the most tactical approach for the budget, strategy, and overall success of your marketing program. 

Quantitative data alone has its limitations: the gaps between the numbers simply leave too much room for assumptions—a hazard to any budget and marketing strategy. Qualitative research elevates quantitative by adding the context of the patient’s voice and experience. Similarly, qualitative data is elevated with quantifiable data backing it up. The trick is, as Fusch states, to have the right balance of both rich and thick data. High-quality insights personify a give-and-take relationship between quantitative and qualitative research where strategical concessions and compromises are made, resulting in insights marketers can use in designing their programs to empower every stakeholder in the hospital. 

A successful marketing investment is nurtured by engaging a community of stakeholders and elevating their competency. In return, the consumer will do a better job playing their role as a patient and choosing your hospital for services. Patients playing a meaningful role in their own health and wellbeing is a positive outcome for your campaign—and a win-win for all stakeholders involved. 

3 Reasons Hospital Marketers Must Understand the Difference between Quantitative and Qualitative Insights

  1. An influx of thick data has made it easy to overlook qualitative insights, resulting in insights that lack richness. Qualitative research gives quantitative data a voice—the voice of the patient.
  2. Understanding the differences between qualitative and quantitative fosters a marriage of insights that will be most effective in articulating a voice, message, and marketing program that relates to, engages with, educates, and moves the consumer to make more informed decisions.
  3. Rich and thick insights inform messaging that empowers and educates stakeholders, so they can be thankful and hold you accountable for taking their time as a marketer. Accountability fuels engagement, and elevated stakeholder competency nurtures your marketing investment.

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