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Finding Qualitative Research in the Health Sciences

Undertaking a qualitative systematic review

The information on this page is pertinent to researchers who are carrying out a qualitative systematic review.

A qualitative systematic review is a review based on a clearly formulated question. It uses systematic and reproducible methods to identify, select and critically appraise all relevant research, and to collect and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review. Qualitative systematic reviews derive data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focus on the meanings and interpretations of the participants.

Checking existing reviews /protocols

It is recommended that you check whether a systematic review on your question has already been conducted or is currently being undertaken. Checking existing reviews/protocols ensures that you are not repeating someone else's work. This may also help you in choosing or refining a review topic. Look for existing systematic reviews/protocols in:

Focusing your research question and developing a search strategy

The PICO (Patient, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) framework is commonly used to develop focused clinical questions for quantitative systematic reviews. A modified version, PICo, can be used for qualitative questions.

Population                              What are the characteristics of the patient or population? What is the condition or disease you are interested in?
Interest What is the phenomena of interest? A defined event, activity, experience or process?
Context What is the setting or distinct characteristics?

Sample topic: What are caregivers' experiences with providing home-based care to patients with HIV/AIDS in Africa?

P - Caregivers providing home-based care to persons with HIV/AIDS

I - Experiences

Co - Africa

Use the following worksheet to create a search strategy:

The SPIDER framework is an alternative search strategy tool (based on PICo) for qualitative/mixed methods research.


Who is the sample or population of interest?                                                                                   

Phenomenon of Interest         What is the phenomena of interest? A defined event, activity, experience or process?
Design What types of study methods are you interested in?
Evaluation What are the evaluation outcomes? (May be subjective - opinions, feelings etc.)
Research type                            What type of research are you interested in? Qualitative or mixed method (qualitative & quantitative)?

Sample topic: What are the experiences of women undergoing IVF treatment?

S - Women

PI - IVF treatment

D - Questionnaire or survey or interview

E - Experiences or views or attitudes or feelings

R - Qualitative or mixed method

SPICE can be used for both qualitative and quantitative studies. SPICE stands for Setting (where?), Perspective (for whom?), Intervention (what?), Comparison (compared with what?) and Evaluation (with what result?).

Sample topic: What are the coping skills of parents of children with autism undergoing behavioural therapy in schools?

S - Schools

P - Parents of children with autism

I - Behavioural therapy

C - None

E - Coping skills

Sources to search

When searching the literature for a qualitative systematic review, the following sources should be considered:

  • Databases - subject specific, general and evidence-based databases
  • Citation databases such as Web of Science and Scopus
  • Reference lists of sources
  • Relevant research councils and institutions
  • Experts in the field
  • Grey literature - sources include reports, dissertations, conference proceedings etc.
  • Hand searching - manually examining relevant publications page by page

For information on search techniques see How to search.

Searching with qualitative filters

When undertaking a qualitative systematic review it is recommended to use a search filter.

filter is a standardised search strategy that is designed to be used in conjunction with a subject search to retrieve valid studies from the (primary) medical or health sciences literature. Filters work in one of two ways by:

  • identifying particular publication types or study designs most likely to answer a question
  • isolating subject or free-text terms most likely to be associated with high quality studies                                                                                    

Methodological search filters focus on the methods of qualitative research rather than the content. They can be:

  • Sensitive - search maximises the retrieval with the risk of more irrelevant articles being retrieved
  • Specific - narrows the search but there is a possibility of missing relevant articles
  • Best balance - gives a search that provides a good balance between sensitivity and specificity

Click the tabs in this box to find out how to search with filters in the CINAHL, Medline, PsycINFO and PubMed databases.

Perform a search for your topic then filter the search by selecting either Qualitative - High Sensitivity, Qualitative - High Specificity or Qualitative - Best Balance from the Clinical Queries search option. 

CINAHL Clinical Queries filter options

Perform a search for your topic then select Additional Limits in the search box. Under Clinical Queries select either Qualitative (maximizes sensitivity), Qualitative (maximizes specificity) or Qualitative (best balance of sensitivity and specificity). Click on Limit A Search to apply the filter to your topic search.

Medline clinical queries filter

Copy and paste the following search string into PsycINFO and combine with your topic search.

((("semi-structured" or semistructured or unstructured or informal or "in-depth" or indepth or "face-to-face" or structured or guide or guides) adj3 (interview* or discussion* or questionnaire*)).ti,ab,id. or (focus group* or qualitative or ethnograph* or fieldwork or "field work" or "key informant")).ti,ab,id. or exp qualitative research/ or exp interviews/ or exp group discussion/ or qualitative not "Literature Review".md.

Source: Library, University of Texas Health Science Centre.

Copy and paste the following search string into PubMed and combine with your topic search.

(((“semi-structured”[TIAB] OR semistructured[TIAB] OR unstructured[TIAB] OR informal[TIAB] OR “in-depth”[TIAB] OR indepth[TIAB] OR “face-to-face”[TIAB] OR structured[TIAB] OR guide[TIAB] OR guides[TIAB]) AND (interview*[TIAB] OR discussion*[TIAB] OR questionnaire*[TIAB])) OR (“focus group”[TIAB] OR “focus groups”[TIAB] OR qualitative[TIAB] OR ethnograph*[TIAB] OR fieldwork[TIAB] OR “field work”[TIAB] OR “key informant”[TIAB])) OR “interviews as topic”[Mesh] OR “focus groups”[Mesh] OR narration[Mesh] OR qualitative research[Mesh] OR "personal narratives as topic"[Mesh]

PubMed Health Services Research Queries

  • From the PubMed home page, select Topic-Specific Queries under PubMed Tools
  • Click on Health Services Research (HSR) Queries. This page provides a filter for specialized PubMed searches on healthcare quality and costs
  • Enter your search topic and select Qualitative research under Category
  • Choose either the broad or narrow scope (for more details click see the filter table).

Reporting literature searches

An important aspect of undertaking a systematic review
 is to provide a clear report of your search strategy.
The STARLITE mnemonic may be used to ensure that all essential elements for reporting your literature search are included.

Sampling strategy
  • Comprehensive: attempts to identify all relevant studies;
  • Selective: attempts to identify all relevant studies but only within specified limit;
  • Purposive: samples from specific disciplines, years, journals.
Type of studies
  • Fully reported: describes actual study types (e.g. grounded theory) or designs to be included;
  • Partially reported: uses an 'umbrella' category such as qualitative studies without defining what this means.
  • Approaches other than electronic subject searches e.g. hand searching, citation searching, snowballing etc.
Range of years
  • Fully reported: includes start and end dates with justification for time period chosen;
  • Partially reported: includes start and end dates but only determined available coverage of databases.
  • Functional limits that are applied for logistic reasons but do not alter the topic conceptually e.g. Humans, English...
Inclusion and exclusion                
  • Conceptual limitations that mediate the scope of the topic area such as geographical locations, setting or a specific focus of study.
Terms used
  • Fully present: example of a sample search strategy from one or more of the main databases;
  • Partially present: reports terminology used but without evidence of search syntax and operators.
Electronic sources
  • Reports databases used and, optimally, search platforms and vendors to assist in replication.

Critical appraisal of qualitative research

Appraising qualitative evidence requires an assessment of the quality of the research in relation to the research methodology, methods and analyses used and the interpretation of data. The following checklists are useful critical appraisal tools, each consisting of ten criteria: