Article Text

‘Unfocused groups’: lessons learnt amid remote focus groups in the Philippines
  1. Mila F Aligato1,
  2. Vivienne Endoma1,
  3. Jonas Wachinger2,
  4. Jhoys Landicho-Guevarra1,
  5. Thea Andrea Bravo1,
  6. Jerric Rhazel Guevarra1,
  7. Jeniffer Landicho1,
  8. Shannon A McMahon2,3 and
  9. Mark Donald C Reñosa1,2
  1. 1Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, Muntinlupa City, Philippines
  2. 2Heidelberg Institute of Global Health, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany
  3. 3International Health, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Shannon A McMahon; mcmahon{at}


The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required tremendous shifts in data collection techniques. While an emerging body of research has described experiences conducting remote interviews, less attention has been paid to focus group discussions (FGDs). Herein, we present experiences conducting remote FGDs (n=9) with healthcare workers and caretakers of small children in the Philippines. We used ‘Facebook Messenger Room’ (FBMR), the preferred platform of participants. Despite some success, we generally encountered considerable challenges in terms of recruiting, retaining and moderating remote FGDs, particularly among caretakers of small children. Finding a quiet, private place proved unfeasible for many participants, who were juggling family demands in tight, locked down quarters. Connectivity issues and technological missteps compromised the flow of FGDs and minimised the ability to share and compare opinions. For the research team, remote FGDs resulted in a dramatic role shift for notetakers—from being passive observers to active tech supporters, chatbox referees and co-moderators (when audio disruptions occurred). Finally, we note that remote FGDs via FBMR are associated with ethical complexities, particularly as participants often chose to use their personal Facebook accounts, which can compromise anonymity. We developed and continuously refined strategies to mitigate challenges, but ultimately decided to forgo FGDs. We urge fellow researchers with more successful experiences to guide the field in terms of capturing high-quality data that respond to research questions, while also contending with privacy concerns, both in online spaces, as well as physical privacy despite lockdowns in tight quarters.

  • COVID-19
  • public health
  • qualitative research
  • primary health care

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

Statistics from

Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.


  • MFA and VE are joint first authors.

  • SAM and MDCR are joint senior authors.

  • Contributors MFA, VE and MDCR wrote the first draft of the manuscript. JW, JL-G, TAB, JRG, JL and SAM contributed to the writing and edited the manuscript. SAM and MDCR supervised all the writing and editing of the manuscript. All authors have read, critically revised the paper and approved the final version of the manuscript.

  • Funding This work was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (OPP1217275). Under the grant conditions of the Foundation, a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License has already been assigned to the Author Accepted Manuscript version that might arise from this submission.

  • Disclaimer The funders had no role in the decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The content is the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of any funder.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.