Conducting Research on a Sensitive Health Topic? Read This First!

A doodle with dog leg says, “…and by sharing your experience, you’ll be helping others with dog leg across the globe!” Another doodle with dog leg says, “Well, at first it was just a mild case of puppy toe…”

As you may have noticed, dear readers, we ❤ using research to inform our health materials. And due diligence (in this case, user research) is even more important when it comes to touchy topics. So this week, we’re talking about conducting research on topics that may be sensitive for your research participants.

We’ve shared tips on writing about sensitive health topics in the past. And it may sound like a no-brainer to start by getting input from people with first-hand experience of your fraught topic. But things can get tricky when you’re asking folks to talk about, say, their experience with PTSD or a terminal illness.

Here are some tips to make research on sensitive topics more comfortable for everyone involved:

  • Think carefully about your method. Make sure you think through the best way to approach research on difficult topics. For example, if an interview setup isn’t ideal, explore other qualitative data collection strategies like collaging or body mapping.
  • Connect the session to a larger purpose. Go above and beyond to show how grateful you are that participants are willing to share their stories with you — and emphasize that what they’re doing can help others who are going through something similar.
  • Lay out special ground rules. It’s always a good idea to set expectations for qualitative data collection, but you may need to adjust your approach for sensitive scenarios. For example, you might tell participants that it’s okay to use swear words to express themselves — and that it’s a safe space to show emotion.
  • Build rapport and connect. Earning participants’ trust is always important, especially when you’re asking people to share personal details. But when you’re running a session on a more intense health topic, spend even more time building a strong rapport when you can. For example, you could ask participants an extra warm-up question or 2 — and reciprocate by sharing relevant details from your own life.
  • Start off slow. Make sure there’s an intentional build when it comes to the intensity of your questions — avoid throwing heavy curve balls at participants right away. Save the tougher questions for later in the session when you’ve had more time to build that strong rapport.
  • Remember that you’re human, too. Be yourself — participants will open up to a person, not a list of questions. And while it’s important to stay composed, it’s also okay to express emotion if you’re moved. That’s, you know, what humans do.

The bottom line: Take extra steps to make participants feel comfortable when you’re doing research on sensitive health topics.

Copy and paste to share on social (and tag us!): Doing #HealthComm research on sensitive topics can be tricky. The team at CommunicateHealth has some tips to make it easier: #HealthLiteracy #HealthCommunication


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