3. Qualitative research


Qualitative research

Measuring and analysing events in quantitative research (e.g., a clinical trial) can help us to predict what might happen in the future. However, this provides little information about feelings or motivations or other factors such as:

  • Social or cultural values or arrangements;
  • Patient-doctor relationships;
  • Stigma;
  • Conflict with religious or cultural views.

 For example, a new contraceptive technology may avoid pregnancy, but this might not be desirable in populations who have strong cultural or religious motivations to have children. To understand how desirable the contraceptive technology is to its users and society, it must be studied using a different research approach. This is where qualitative research is valuable.

Qualitative research is primarily exploratory research: it has been described as ‘a systematic, subjective approach to describe life experiences and give them meaning’ (1). It is a way to gain understanding of underlying reasons and motivations for a certain behaviour and to uncover current thoughts or opinions of individuals. It provides insights into the problem or helps to develop ideas or hypotheses for potential quantitative research. While an individual patient may feel strongly that payers should provide access to a new medicine, decision makers in a health system must consider what society needs as a whole, what is affordable under sometimes tight budget constraints and how to ensure equitable provision of best health care. It is possible that the beliefs, attitudes or feelings of that individual patient do not reflect society’s beliefs.

Qualitative research helps to generate a more thorough and defensible understanding of how or why a population might adopt a new health technology or how they might feel about using it.

Qualitative data collection methods vary using unstructured or semi-structured techniques. Some common methods include focus groups (group discussions), individual interviews, and participation/observations. The sample size is typically small, and respondents are selected to fulfil given criteria. Interactions between researchers and research participants are at the core of qualitative research methods. The understanding that comes from ‘meaning’ or ‘why’ or ‘how’ does not come from measurable or countable results of observations, but from what is being said and done by participants, or what is being inferred by the researcher. Qualitative researchers may also gather data from documents or other written sources. In addition to gathering data that reflects thoughts and expressions, for example what is learned today in a specific group cannot be generalised or may change over time.