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Dr Aleksandra Borek, Senior Researcher and tutor on Qualitative Research Methods shares invaluable insights into using qualitative research

diverse group of patients sitting on chairs in a circle discussing their experiences

Qualitative methods in health research

The value of qualitative research has been increasingly recognised in health sciences.

If you are a health researcher or health professional interested in research, the chances are that you’ve come across qualitative research but may still not be very familiar with it. Perhaps you are wondering if qualitative methods might be relevant to your topic of interest/research or considering doing a qualitative study and wanting to know how to approach it. Perhaps you are a part of a multidisciplinary team and want to understand your colleagues talking about and doing qualitative research; Or maybe you read qualitative papers and want to be able to evaluate their quality with greater confidence. Our course can help you develop critical knowledge and skills in qualitative research.

Qualitative Research Methods module

Our Qualitative Research Methods is an introductory training in qualitative methods led by experienced research-active tutors. It runs over eight weeks, with one intensive week in person in Oxford or online. During the course students learn about the value and principles of qualitative methodologies, different qualitative methods and other aspects related to qualitative research, such as how to search for qualitative literature and how to appraise studies. We cover the process from designing to delivering a qualitative study, and offer training in the most commonly used qualitative data collection methods (interviews, focus groups and observations), and analytic and methodological approaches (thematic analysis, framework analysis, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, Grounded Theory). The emphasis is on experiential learning and practical activities offer a chance to skill up and learn by doing.

The course can be taken as a stand-alone module or as part of a formal qualification, including the Postgraduate Certificate in Qualitative Health Research, the MSc in Evidence-Based Health Care, and Postgraduate Diploma or Postgraduate Certificate in Health Research.

How qualitative methods can be used in health research

Qualitative methods are uniquely suited to exploring and understanding patients’ and health professionals’ experiences and views related to a wide range of topics. Findings of such studies can inform decisions about clinical pathways, patient care and healthcare workforce. For example, in our work with healthcare professionals about their experiences of working during the Covid-19 pandemic,  findings were promptly fed back to decision-makers during the study to help inform the response to the pandemic (published here, here and here). 

Qualitative studies aim to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. While quantitative evaluations can tell us whether interventions (e.g., a leaflet, training, diagnostic test) have worked or not, they usually don’t explain how or why. Incorporating qualitative methods, such as interviews and observations, can help us better understand how the intervention was implemented, its mechanisms of impact and can also explain quantitative results. For example, we used interviews to understand how a national financial incentive influenced antibiotic prescribing in primary care. We are also using interviews and observations to understand how NHS trusts have implemented different systems to improve prompt identification and management of sepsis.

Qualitative approaches also have an important role in multidisciplinary and mixed-methods studies. They help to identify and define the problem, develop potential solutions and interventions, and evaluate them. For example, we used qualitative methods to develop an intervention to promote the uptake of antimicrobial stewardship strategies in high antibiotic prescribing general practices. We then used qualitative interviews as part of a mixed-methods evaluation, which helped explain why there was no impact on antibiotic prescribing rates and identified the differences between practices in how they implemented the intervention. Qualitative methods are also crucial in better understanding acceptability of, and adherence to, interventions. 

Find out more about our Qualitative Research Methods course on the course page here.