Liz Wager warms to qualitative research

Liz WagerI’m just back from running a course in Kenya and, as usual, it was an eye-opening experience – but perhaps not in the way you might expect. I’ll admit that, until now, I have been a bit sceptical about qualitative research.

I’d like to think that I wasn’t actually prejudiced, but let’s just say I had a strong preference for “real” research with lots of numbers and I viewed qualitative work as a poor relation. But reading a study being written by one of the course participants has changed my mind.

The paper hasn’t been submitted yet, and I promised that I wouldn’t give away the findings, but I hope I can give you some glimpses to explain my conversion. It described a study investigating local people’s views about a change in national policy on first-line treatment for malaria. It provided wonderful insights into the problems of public health communication in developing countries.

For a start, the local language does not have a specific word for malaria. The best fit is a term that applies to all sorts of fevers, colds and stomach upsets. So it is hardly surprising that the population is sometimes confused about what treatment they are getting and sometimes calls the antimalarials “Panadols” or uses pain killers to treat malaria. Then there is the problem of getting any message to a rural, poorly educated population. Radio sounds promising but I was surprised to read that this was likely to reach men rather than women. The reason is fascinating and alarming. Radio is generally the man’s preserve and one respondent explained that he always took the batteries out of the radio when he was away. Next time I feel aggrieved because my husband has to be reminded to do his share of the washing-up, I’ll try to remember this and realise how lucky I am to live in a more equal society. Or perhaps, given my new-found enthusiasm for the techniques, I should do a piece of qualitative research on English men’s attitudes to housework?

Liz Wager is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).