More than numbers

109px-Aristoteles_LouvreToday begins a series of posts about understanding qualitative research in medicine, written by Jess Morgan (but open to further contributions!). Feel free to comment, tweet or facebook your thoughts too…


Have you ever wondered what on earth qualitative researchers are on about? What is ethnography? Phenomenology? Purposive sampling? And then what about triangulation, reflexivity and deviant case analysis? How are you even supposed to tell if a qualitative paper is even any good when there are no power calculations, blinding or difficult stats? This series of blogs aims to tackle some of these issues – to make them more accessible and to allow you to begin to evaluate the qualitative work that you come across.

First of all, we need to switch our minds away from the standard research methods that we have been taught throughout medical school. These are frequently very useful techniques for evaluating randomised control trials or tests of diagnostic tools. These methodologies are absolutely great for answering some of the questions we have in paediatrics – like ‘which antibiotic is better for meningococcal sepsis?’ or ‘what is the most accurate test for chronic kidney disease?’

But what about the questions like ‘what is it like to be a teenager with Duchenne muscular dystrophy?’ or ‘why don’t children with cystic fibrosis do their physiotherapy?’ Perhaps we could use our quantitative methods to measure quality of life in DMD or create a questionnaire about physiotherapy. That would allow us to measure if what we do for these children works. But it might also oversimplify the issues, or even completely miss the points that are important to our patients. Using qualitative research in these kinds of questions can provide deeper, more meaningful answers to our questions. It can also help us to direct our quantitative research more appropriately and inform our service development.

Therefore, you can see that the reasons for using qualitative research are different, as are the results we want to gain from it, and so we must use different methods and different reasoning to achieve our goals!

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