Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Qualitative Research: Reaching the parts other methods cannot reach: an introduction to qualitative methods in health and health services research

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 01 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:42
  1. Catherine Pope, lecturer in social and behavioural medicinea,
  2. Nick Maysa
  1. aDepartment of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Leicester, 22-28 Princess Road West, Leicester LE1 6TP
  2. King's Fund Institute, London W2 4HT Nicholas Mays, director of health services research.
  1. Correspondence to: Ms Pope.

    Qualitative research methods have a long history in the social sciences and deserve to be an essential component in health and health services research. Qualitative and quantitative approaches to research tend to be portrayed as antithetical; the aim of this series of papers is to show the value of a range of qualitative techniques and how they can complement quantitative research.

    Aims of this series

    Medical advances, increasing specialisation, rising patient expectations, and the sheer size and diversity of health service provision mean that today's health professionals work in an increasingly complex arena. The wide range of research questions generated by this complexity has encouraged the search for new ways of conducting research. The rapid expansion of research on and about health and health services, and the relatively recent demarcation of a distinct field of “health services research” depend heavily on doctors and other health professionals being investigators, participants, and peer reviewers. Yet some of the most important questions in health services concern the organisation and culture of those who provide health care, such as why the findings of randomised controlled trials are often difficult to apply in day to day clinical practice. The social science methods appropriate to studying such phenomena are very different from the methods familiar to many health professionals.

    Although the more qualitative approaches found in certain of the social sciences may seem alien alongside the experimental, quantitative methods used in clinical and biomedical research, they should be an essential component of health services research--not just because they enable us to access areas not amenable to quantitative research, such as lay and professional health beliefs, but also because qualitative description is a prerequisite of good quantitative research, particularly in areas that have received little previous investigation. A good example of this is the study of the social consequences of the …

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