Healthcare researchers face unique challenges when using qualitative methods

Categories: Qualitative

by Jane Edwards, PhD


Healthcare researchers sometimes avoid the complexity of the histories and traditions of different methods by using the term ‘qualitative research’ for their method rather than a specific method. It is still possible to find papers in journals where the method is not specified, or a method is specified but not the particular approach chosen. Grounded Theory, for example,  is now considered a ‘‘family of methods’’ (Bryant & Charmaz, 2007, p. 11). Therefore a researcher using Grounded Theory should know which tradition or theorist they are primarily referencing in using the method.  As training is now more widely available, undertaking training sessions before using these techniques is advisable. PhD supervisors and even ethics committees have a role to play here.

People often ask me why this has happened and why it persists. I think some of the reasons might be because qualitative methods in healthcare became quite fashionable relatively quickly through the late 90s to the current day. Health trainings included a few lectures on qualitative methods by the same people who were teaching quantitative methods. Once students learned that “qualitative research” was a research method it became embedded in the research culture in healthcare. Journals began to receive criticism for not publishing qualitative studies and responded by including qualitative studies that did not follow standard protocols for quality because the reviewers had no experience or training in these methods. These then became reference points for others’ research processes.  
Healthcare researchers have been challenged many times in the wider literature for neglecting to identify the method they used to analyse data in qualitative methods studies, and for the avoidance of reference to the epistemology on which their research is based. As Carter and Little (2007) noted
Epistemology, methodology, and method are fundamental concepts. Any experienced qualitative researcher should have wrestled with each of them during her or his career. However, qualitative research reporting is frequently insufficient in all three areas, and although this might be partly due to word length limitations in some journals, it also suggests a lack of engagement with these important concepts.
(Carter & Little, 2007, p. 1319)
Epistemology can be difficult to teach. In my experience students are not interested because it is too complex and bewildering. They just want to move on and interview their participants. One of my goals for the next part of my career is to develop ways of teaching this information that engages students, enables ethics committees and journal committees to make better decisions about qualitative research studies, and helps researchers to feel more competent in using qualitative methods in research. I feel quite sorry for people who were told by their PhD supervisor to take out references to epistemology or to a specific method that they used and to keep their language generic using qualitative instead of a recognised method.
Before the end of the year I will be running a two day workshop on qualitative methods research in healthcare to help healthcare researchers from allied health, nursing, medicine, and any other area related to healthcare to get PhD ready – November 27 and 28 Queen’s College, Parkville, Melbourne. If you would like to be sent information about this workshop please write to
Bryant, A., & Charmaz, K. (2007). Introduction. In L. H. Bryant & K. Charmaz (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of grounded theory (pp. 1–28). Los Angeles: SAGE.
Carter, S., & Little, M. (2007). Justifying knowledge, justifying method, taking action: Epistemologies, methodologies, and methods in qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 17, 1316–1328.