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Health events and outbreaks can happen at any time, and as we have seen with COVID-19, they can happen fast. In these situations, it is important for researchers conducting in-person data collection to consider their own health and safety, the possibility of becoming a vector for illness through their travels, and the health and safety of their participants. However, when a health event occurs, research efforts do not have to suffer. Researchers and businesses can take the following steps to mitigate risks and ensure that data collection is still possible:

1. Communicate early and communicate often

In the event of an outbreak during or ahead of data collection, researchers should establish an open line of communication with their team and client to ensure everyone is aware of the developing situation and how it could impact the study. The team should work together to create contingency plans, just in case they need to make last-minute changes to the project schedule or scope in the interest of safety.

If the research organization does not already have an organization-wide policy in place, leadership should consider drafting one for the steps and decisions they will need to make (e.g., restricting travel) in the event of a national health emergency. Having a plan in place and communicating it effectively to the staff will help lay the groundwork for quick action across levels if the situation should demand it.

It is also important to communicate with participants about the outbreak. The research team should explain to participants the steps that are being taken to ensure their health and safety (e.g., wiping down surfaces and cleaning computers, keyboards, and other frequently used supplies).

2. Consider working health and wellness into participant screeners

Addressing the outbreak in the screener may help participants make a more informed and responsible decision about participating in the study. Researchers could also plan to ask participants a few wellness questions as they arrive for the data collection as part of a re-screening procedure.

It’s flu season! To help us ensure a healthy and safe environment for you, our other participants, and our staff, please answer the following question:

  • In the past seven days have you experienced any flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue, or tiredness)?
    • Yes
    • No

However, researchers should be careful to take participants’ privacy with health information into account when drafting the screener and storing participants’ responses. Screener questions like the one above may not be necessary in every scenario, so the team should pay close attention to the local news in the areas that they intend to visit.

3. Evaluate study incentives

Providing incentives necessitates a delicate balance between offsetting the cost of participation and enticing people to participate. Researchers should consider the impact that the study incentives may have, especially on vulnerable populations. During health events, particularly large-scale events that threaten to disrupt means of income, community priorities begin to shift. For some, this could make the study incentive seem like a harder offer to refuse. If monetary incentives become a concern for the study in question, researchers should consider alternative incentive methods, such as offering a lower monetary incentive combined with a non-monetary incentive (e.g., food). Additionally, the research team could consider moving data collection to a different, unaffected area with a similar population.

4. Offer a more flexible data collection schedule

When possible with the overall study budget and deadlines, researchers should consider offering flexible session dates or even postponement to allow recruits the space to navigate the outbreak and the time to recover as necessary. This may have additional cost implications, including the cost per recruit and facility rentals.

5. Be prepared to reschedule or dismiss a participant who shows up ill

Despite all planning, the research team may still encounter a participant who exhibits symptoms or signs of being ill (e.g., excessive sweating, coughing, unhealthy pallor, bleary eyes). If this happens, the research team should check in with the ill participant as soon as possible to make sure they are OK and excuse the participant if they determine that participation would not be in their best interest. When possible, the team should offer to reschedule the participant for a time when they are feeling better. As an added precaution, the team should disinfect any areas where all participants will be frequenting (e.g., food stations, focus group table).

6. Switch modes of data collection

In extreme cases, like we are facing now with COVID-19, researchers may need to switch from in-person data collection to remote sessions. Doing so will help limit the spread of the virus while minimizing the impact on any planned data collection.

Keep in mind that switching to remote sessions will require proportionate changes to the scope, schedule, and budget of the study. For example, researchers may need to allow additional time to adjust the current study materials (e.g., recruitment and fielding materials) and to set up the appropriate technology. Also note that remote data collection may impact the type and quality of the information that researchers will be able to collect (e.g., fewer tangible activities or worksheets). Before making the switch, researchers should consider whether the information that they will be collecting can be adequately studied in a remote session versus in-person data collection.

When deciding to change modes of data collection, researchers should also bear in mind that accessibility may impact their sample. Not everyone has access to the same means of participation (e.g., a computer or a webcam). Switching to remote data collection may exclude some participants who would otherwise fall into the study sample, meaning that the sessions may become less diverse. However, remote data collection may make it easier for other participants to join—hard-to-reach populations with busier schedules (e.g., physicians) or those who do not have access to a means of transportation.


Canceling data collection is nobody’s favorite option, but it may become necessary to cancel all or portions of a planned data collection in the interest of public health and safety. As qualitative researchers, we tend to see ourselves as the champions for our participants and heralds of their voices. As such, the most important thing we can do is put their health and safety ahead of the data. As news unfolds around the outbreak, be realistic and open with the client about your concerns.

Public health events can be unpredictable, so it is important that we remain flexible in order to meet the needs of our clients without endangering our participants or ourselves. At the end of the day, our focus should be on people, not on paper.

Contact us to learn more about how FMG creates robust processes and best practices to ensure successful research efforts.

About the author

Sam Evans

Sam Evans

Sam Evans is a senior qualitative researcher and experienced moderator. He has significant experience designing and executing studies, authoring moderator guides, and moderating both in-person and remote focus groups and in-depth interviews. At FMG, Sam serves as an internal subject matter expert focused on developing and implementing best practices in qualitative methods across the organization.

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