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Finding Qualitative Research in the Health Sciences

What is a qualitative research?

Qualitative research seeks to understand and interpret personal experiences, behaviours, interactions, and social contexts to explain the phenomena of interest, such as the attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives of patients and clinicians; the interpersonal nature of caregiver and patient relationships; the illness experience; or the impact of human suffering (Wong et al, 2004).

Qualitative evidence extracts information useful in clinical decision making when it comes to issues related to whether an activity is feasible, appropriate or meaningful. Meaningfulness relates to the personal experience, opinions, values, thoughts, beliefs and interpretations of clients.

Wong SSL, Wilczynski NL, Haynes RB. Developing optimal search strategies for detecting clinically relevant qualitative studies in Medline. Medinfo 2004;311-314.

IFPRI images by Udita Chatterjee/Landesa 

Qualitative research methodologies

  • Phenomenology looks at human perception and subjectivity and focuses on the 'lived experience' of the individual concerned. Data of the participant's experience is collected using a focused but non-structured interview. The interviews are transcribed verbatim and then researchers try to identify the main themes of experience and derive meaning and knowledge from the phenomena.

  • Grounded theory involves the discovery of a theory through the analysis of data. It is a research method that is almost opposite to the traditional social science research in that it does not begin with a hypothesis but starts with data collection through a variety of methods. From the data collected, the key points are marked with a series of codes which are grouped into similar concepts. From these concepts categories are formed which form the basis for the creation of a theory or hypothesis.

  • Ethnography is used to study groups of people who share social and cultural characteristics; think of themselves as a group;and share common language, geographic locale and identity. Ethnography provides a 'portrait of the people'. It involves participant observation, the recording of field notes and interviewing key informants.

  • Action research asks the question, "What is happening here and how could it be different?". It is a process of reflecting on the world to change it followed by evaluation. Data collected can be both qualitative and quantitative. Themes, issues and concerns are extracted and discussed by both the research team and the participating group.

Source: Hoffmann, T. A. et al (2013). Evidence-based practice across the health professions  (2nd ed): Chatswood, NSW : Elsevier Australia.