Academic journal article The Journal of Rehabilitation

Focus Groups: A Tool for Consumer-Based Program Evaluation in Rehabilitation Agency Settings

Academic journal article The Journal of Rehabilitation

Focus Groups: A Tool for Consumer-Based Program Evaluation in Rehabilitation Agency Settings

Article excerpt

Despite the fact that focus groups are widely used in market research, this technique has been under-utilized in rehabilitation program evaluation. To underscore its potential utility, this article will describe a series of focus groups conducted in a vocational training and rehabilitation setting. A total of 70 clients participated in 8 focus groups intended to identify clients' perceptions of the agency's program service strengths and weaknesses. The results of this focus group series are highlighted with particular attention given to the steps involved in the conduct of focus groups in rehabilitation agency settings in general. Issues related to the use of this technique in rehabilitation program evaluation are then discussed.

Rehabilitation agencies face many challenges as they seek to improve their services in the coming decades. Increased demand for accountability and effectiveness combined with dedication to empower clients present major program goals (Mason, 1990; Emener, 1991). Although traditional evaluation methods that measure program process and outcome continue to have merit, additional techniques need to be incorporated as technological, social, political, and economic pressures occur. One such technique, focus groups, appears to have much potential for rehabilitation program evaluation.

Focus groups have been used in market research since World War II, often to assess the impact or potential impact of a new product or service (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). More recently, studies have shown that focus groups can provide valuable feedback about ongoing experiences and general opinions in applied settings other than market research. For example, focus groups have been used to help evaluate products for hearing impaired individuals (Harkins & Jensema, 1987), to assess the public's perceptions of health risk factors (Morgan & Spanish, 1985), and to support international family planning projects (Bertrand, Brown, & Ward, 1992). These and other studies suggest that focus groups can contribute significant information during the program decision-making process as well as lead to the formation and development of further evaluation efforts.


Although focus groups vary considerably across situations and purpose, they can be broadly defined as a technique whereby 8 to 12 individuals discuss a particular topic of interest under the direction of a moderator (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). Typically a group session lasts for 1 to 2 hours; as a result, only a relatively narrow range of group size is practical. More than one group per specific topic is usually conducted and is strongly recommended. A primary strength of the focus group technique "is the explicit use of group interaction to produce data and insights that would be less accessible without the interaction found in a group" (Morgan, 1988, p. 12). The primary role of the moderator is to promote interaction, probe for details when warranted, and ensure that the discussion remains directed toward the topic of interest (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). The fundamental data produced by focus groups are the transcripts of the group discussion (Morgan, 1988).

Focus groups can serve a variety of program-related purposes. Major among these are to: (1) obtain general background information about a program, (2) generate program ideas that can be implemented and tested, (3) diagnose program problem areas, (4) gather information about consumers' impressions about a program, and (5) learn how consumers talk about the program or topic of interest (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990).

Programmatically, this information can be used to help orient a service provider who is new to the field or program. It can also be used to generate impressions about consumers' experience and insights as well as to empower consumers to actively participate in changing their environment. Focus-group based information can also support research efforts, such as: to evaluate programs at different sites or for different target groups, for questionnaire development, to test hypotheses, and to facilitate interpretation of results from earlier or ongoing studies (Morgan, 1988; Mitra, 1992). …

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