Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Qualitative research in health care

Assessing quality in qualitative research

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 01 January 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:50
  1. Nicholas Mays, health adviser (,
  2. Catherine Pope, lecturer in medical sociologyb
  1. aSocial Policy Branch, The Treasury, PO Box 3724, Wellington, New Zealand
  2. bDepartment of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 2PR
  1. Correspondence to: N Mays

    This is the first in a series of three articles

    In the past decade, qualitative methods have become more commonplace in areas such as health services research and health technology assessment, and there has been a corresponding rise in the reporting of qualitative research studies in medical and related journals.1 Interest in these methods and their wider exposure in health research has led to necessary scrutiny of qualitative research. Researchers from other traditions are increasingly concerned to understand qualitative methods and, most importantly, to examine the claims researchers make about the findings obtained from these methods.

    The status of all forms of research depends on the quality of the methods used. In qualitative research, concern about assessing quality has manifested itself recently in the proliferation of guidelines for doing and judging qualitative work.25 Users and funders of research have had an important role in developing these guidelines as they become increasingly familiar with qualitative methods, but require some means of assessing their quality and of distinguishing “good” and “poor” quality research. However, the issue of “quality” in qualitative research is part of a much larger and contested debate about the nature of the knowledge produced by qualitative research, whether its quality can legitimately be judged, and, if so, how. This paper cannot do full justice to this wider epistemological debate. Rather it outlines two views of how qualitative methods might be judged and argues that qualitative research can be assessed according to two broad criteria: validity and relevance.

    Summary points

    Qualitative methods are now widely used and increasingly accepted in health research, but quality in qualitative research is a mystery to many health services researchers

    There is considerable debate over the nature of the knowledge produced by such methods and how such research should be judged

    Antirealists argue …

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