Effective Online Focus Groups in Data Collection for Low-Income and Minority Populations


Newswise – Online focus groups are an effective way to collect data while reducing barriers faced by people from low-income and minority groups, say researchers from the University’s Health Sciences Center from Texas to Houston (UTHealth Houston).

The study was published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

The researchers cited a reduction in required resources and barriers to participation, while maintaining high-quality data collection in their findings.

Daphne Hernandez, PhD, an associate professor in the Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston, was in the midst of a study using in-person focus groups as a way to assess the effectiveness of a food distribution program that provided to community college students of fruits, vegetables, dry goods and meat when COVID-19 stay-at-home orders began. Hernandez and the research team were faced with a dilemma: either stop the study or find a solution that would allow them to continue while ensuring everyone’s safety.

“We were doing traditional, face-to-face focus groups when the pandemic hit, and we didn’t want to stop collecting data,” said Hernandez, Lee and Joseph Jamail Distinguished Professor at the School of Nursing. “We had a good dynamic and didn’t want to put people at risk.”

Although the idea of ​​an online focus group is not new, the research team was concerned about the decline in participation and the lower quality of data collection. However, their findings debunked these claims while revealing unexpected benefits for researchers and participants.

“I felt like I was doing an experiment as part of the study and I was surprised to see a positive response,” Hernandez said. “With the in-person focus groups, we had a really hard time getting people to come, so we were excited to have online focus groups, and that meant we could continue the study.”

First, the researchers found that they could recruit participants and collect data with little or no change. The number of people recruited in person remained the same for the online focus groups and they had similar demographic backgrounds to the participants in the in-person focus groups. In addition, the content of the discussion groups has not changed. Researchers were able to provide the same questions and record quality answers in the online format.

The researchers also found a reduction in the resources needed to conduct the online focus group compared to in-person focus groups.

“There is an increased cost for in-person focus groups compared to online,” Hernandez said. “In person, we will compensate attendees for parking, and there is also a fee for feeding attendees or providing snacks in addition to compensating attendees for their time and participation. With online focus groups, food and parking allowances are not necessary. »

Study participants had a reduction in the resources needed to participate. When evaluating the parent study of the food distribution program, some participants cited transportation as a barrier to picking up food. The researchers also said transportation was the reason participants did not show up for the in-person focus groups, which resulted in some focus groups being canceled throughout the research.

“When we were analyzing data from the food distribution program, we identified that some students frequented frequently and some did not,” Hernandez said. “Low participation in the food distribution program was linked to not having transport; they either had to rely on someone else or not participate in the program. This transportation barrier then extended to attending the in-person focus groups. »

Finally, the researchers suggested that this method is effective not only for COVID-19, but also when working with low-income or vulnerable populations, due to reduced barriers and increased flexibility of participation.

“During the online focus groups, we preferred participants to have their video, as it allowed for non-verbal communication. But the platform allows people to turn off their camera if they don’t feel comfortable in a group,” Hernandez said.

Online focus groups also gave researchers more options for scheduling focus groups to allow for the most participation.

“When we did the in-person focus groups, we usually had them on the weekend because that was the best time for our participants, who were probably working during the week. For online discussion groups, they could join in the evening from the comfort of their own home. All they needed was internet access,” Hernandez said.

With the advent of technology, more and more people have access to Wi-Fi on their computer or cellular data on their phone. Hernandez hopes what these results will mean for future qualitative studies.

“I think applying an online video platform to collect data from focus groups is a good method when working with low-income, vulnerable populations,” Hernandez said. “We will continue to use this method to reach underrepresented groups.”

Other researchers include Sajeevika S. Daundasekara, PhD, researcher at the Cizik School of Nursing; Quenette Walton, PhD, and Chinyere Eigege of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work; and Mayra Gomez, MD, of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

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