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Qualitative Methods for Health Research

Qualitative Methods for Health Research
Geva Greenfield, Agnieszska Ignatowicz & Jessica D. Jones Nielsen (NIHR Research Design Service, Department of Primary Care & Public Health, Imperial College London)

What is qualitative research? 
Qualitative research allows researchers to investigate phenomenon by broadening and deepening their understanding through description and is used by a variety of disciplines. The strength of qualitative research lies in its ability to provide information about the “human” side of any issue – that is, it seeks to discover the meanings that participants attach to their behaviour, how they interpret and experience situations, and what their views are on particular issues. This methodology has received increasing recognition in health research as it focuses on how patients interpret and describe their experiences and captures their perspectives of healthcare.

What kind of topics can qualitative health research address?

A qualitative study exploring self-care coping strategies in patients with diabetes 
In this wholly qualitative study, researchers could use interviews or focus groups with a wide range of patients to explore their experiences of diabetes self-care, with particular reference to the burden of self-care and coping strategies. Findings from this study could help researchers to inform content and design of a larger quantitative questionnaire study, and to quantify whether most patients share these experiences. By studying patients’ experiences in-depth, researchers can be confident that they ask patients about issues that are important to them in the larger quantitative study, and capture the full range of diabetes self-care behaviours.

A mixed methods study to explore the reasons why physiotherapy patients with asthma do not do their prescribed exercises 
Researchers may already have good evidence of the reasons why physiotherapy patients do not do their prescribed exercises in general, but evidence may be lacking in this patient group. They could use a mixed design to help confirm findings, generate more complete data for asthma patients or use results from one method to enhance findings from the other. For instance, researchers could use a structured questionnaire to ask participants about factors inhibiting them from exercising. Findings from this component could then be followed up with in-depth interviews, which would allow researchers to gain a more detailed patient perspective, and ultimately help to modify the exercise plans to fit the unique experience of asthma patients.

A feasibility study for a trial 
Qualitative research is used increasingly alongside trials to explore processes, contextual factors, or intervention characteristics that may have influenced the outcomes. For instance, researchers could use interviews with patients to identify the needs of a target population and/ or acceptable ways to implement the intervention. Post intervention, they could consider focus groups to explore and enhance their understanding of research participants who dropped out or did not adhere to the intervention. Used alongside trials, qualitative research can also shed light on the results of systematic reviews of effectiveness by looking for factors that can help explain heterogeneous results across trials.

How can we help? 
Whether from a stand-alone qualitative study or as part of mixed methods research, qualitative data can help to better understand the phenomenon under investigation and strengthen the application for funding. RDS London has specialist qualitative advisers who can help researcher design and describe qualitative research.

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