The importance of qualitative research in healthcare

22 January 2016 | Academic Clinical ProgrammesResearchEvents 

 

  • Qualitative research in healthcare has become increasingly important and wide-spread, yet many people do not see the credibility behind qualitative research.
  • Qualitative research allows for a richer and more in-depth understanding of a process or a phenomenon.
  • This is important as healthcare research is more than just a solution-seeking practice.


Over the past twenty years, qualitative research in healthcare has become increasingly important and wide-spread, yet many people do not see the credibility behind qualitative research.

According to Dr Lorelei Lingard, Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario and the inaugural Director of the Centre for Education Research & Innovation at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, despite qualitative research being less prevalent than quantitative research in healthcare, it is no less important or credible than its quantitative counterpart.

So how is qualitative research important in healthcare?

Qualitative research is exploratory in nature – its methodologies allow for a richer and more in-depth understanding of a process or a phenomenon.

This is important as healthcare research is more than just a solution-seeking practice; it is concerned with how things occur, how people make sense of things and how issues unfold in real-world settings.

Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research looks at the real world in the actual context of the issues at hand. It is not conducted in a controlled environment and there is no single standard upon which success is measured.

Dr Lingard cited her previously published study - she observed that communication failures occurred in approximately 30 per cent of team exchanges in an Operating Room, and a third of these resulted in effect which jeopardised patient safety.

Her study helped the research team develop a checklist to improve communications in the OR.

“Qualitative research aims to generate in-depth accounts from individuals and groups by talking with them, watching their behaviour, analysing their artefacts, and taking into account the different contexts in which they are based,” said Dr Lingard, quoting from a research paper by Kuper et al. (BMJ, 2008).

Dr Lingard shared five areas which qualitative research questions often target:

1)      Human & Social Experiences
2)      Human Perception
3)      Social Relationships
4)      Cultural Rituals
5)      Organisational Routines

Therefore, qualitative research data consist of words, pictures and artefacts (for example, documents), instead of the numbers seen in quantitative research.

The sample sizes utilised in qualitative research are also often smaller than those required in quantitative research.

A study by Reeves et al. (J Interprof Care, 2015) revealed issues with interprofessional collaboration and family member involvement in four ICUs. Each researcher spent 10-12 hours per week gathering observation, conducting interviews and collecting documents – the resulting data consisting of dialogues between healthcare professionals, quotes from family members and documents on the ICU’s clinical guidelines and policies.

Dr Lingard remarked that “qualitative research in the healthcare setting is unique and it differs from other settings, for example history or women’s studies.”

This is due to the largely quantitative context that healthcare research is found in, thus often resulting in hybrid research approaches. The analysis methods and outcomes are unique, where there is a strong need for relevance to context.

“Its ability to refine or criticise existing theories and provide us with rich descriptions to enhance our understanding of a certain process or phenomenon makes qualitative research increasingly important in healthcare today,” said Dr Lingard.

Dr Lingard was invited by the Research Department in SingHealth Polyclinics to Singapore from 18 to 22 Jan as the MOH-Health Manpower Development Plan Visiting Expert for Family Medicine, helping to train healthcare professionals from multiple disciplines in qualitative research methods and methodologies.



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