Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Qualitative Research: Qualitative interviews in medical research

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 22 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:251
  1. Nicky Britten, lecturer in medical sociologya
  1. aDepartment of General Practice, United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy's and St Thomas's Hospitals, London SE11 6SP

    Much qualitative research is interview based, and this paper provides an outline of qualitative interview techniques and their application in medical settings. It explains the rationale for these techniques and shows how they can be used to research kinds of questions that are different from those dealt with by quantitative methods. Different types of qualitative interviews are described, and the way in which they differ from clinical consultations is emphasised. Practical guidance for conducting such interviews is given.

    Types of qualitative interview

    Practising clinicians routinely interview patients during their clinical work, and they may wonder whether simply talking to people constitutes a legitimate form of research. In sociology and related disciplines, however, interviewing is a well established research technique. There are three main types: structured, semistructured, and in depth interviews (box 1).

    Types of interviews

    • Structured Usually with a structured questionnaire

    • Semistructured Open ended questions

    • Depth One or two issues covered in great detail Questions are based on what the interviewee says

    Structured interviews consist of administering structured questionnaires, and interviewers are trained to ask questions (mostly fixed choice) in a standardised manner. For example, interviewees might be asked: “Is your health: excellent, good, fair, or poor?” Though qualitative interviews are often described as being unstructured in order to contrast them with this type of formalised quantitative interview, the term “unstructured” is misleading as no interview is completely devoid of structure: if it were, there would be no guarantee that the data gathered would be appropriate to the research question.

    Semistructured interviews are conducted on the basis of a loose structure consisting of open ended questions that define the area to be explored, at least initially, and from which the interviewer or interviewee may diverge in order to pursue an idea in more detail. Continuing with the same example, interviewees might initially be asked a series of …

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