The Importance of Qualitative Research

Statement of Problem

As the sociologist William Bruce Cameron stated, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” In order to affect change and maximize health, it is crucial to understand the varying importance of health issues to different groups, and to identify factors that impact decision-making and guide health-seeking behaviors. Qualitative research allows investigators to develop a deeper understanding of a topic than can be obtained through quantitative research alone. Qualitative research uses methodologies such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, and direct observation so researchers can investigate stakeholders’ attitudes, beliefs, and preferences – the how and why of decision-making. Qualitative research methods provide an opportunity for a systematic, in-depth evaluation of a question that may not be easily answered through quantitative methods. Furthermore, these methods can add to quantitative results through explanations and clarifications with the target population.

Researchers from PolicyLab and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) are engaged in several research projects using qualitative methodology, including:

  1. As technology in medicine rapidly expands and as new modalities are introduced to the patient encounter, clinicians, administrators, and insurers should consider the opinions of patients and families. One such technology that has seen rapid introduction into various settings is telemedicine, broadly described as a method for connecting a patient to a clinician in another location, through video and sound technology that allows the clinician to obtain history and physical exam information remotely. The use of this technology has been proposed to reduce unnecessary transfers from outlying hospitals to specialty centers. A team of researchers at CHOP, led by PolicyLab’s Dr. Cynthia Mollen, are investigating the preferences and opinions of parents of children transferred to the Emergency Department [ED] with respect to telemedicine and the potential impact on inter-facility transfers. This qualitative study, consisting of in-depth interviews, is the first step in a research plan aimed at affecting the optimal use of this technology.
  2. Prior research has demonstrated that parents of children discharged from the ED often do not understand their discharge instructions, putting the child at risk for ongoing illness or unnecessary return visits to the ED. To address this issue, a team of researchers at CHOP and PolicyLab, led by Dr. Margaret Samuels-Kalow, are engaged in a multi-stage research project that will culminate in the development of an improved ED discharge process. This line of research relies heavily on qualitative methods, including one-on-one interviews with parents of ED patients as well as adult ED patients, in order to identify the needs around the discharge process and potential improvements.
  3. A third line of research at PolicyLab utilizing qualitative methods focuses on engagement of adolescents in the research process, from identifying a research question, to participating in studies, to understanding best practices around dissemination of results, and influencing behavior and policy change. By involving adolescents in this work, we aim to work toward maximizing the impact of research affecting adolescents, in order to best improve health. This work is currently in the early stages of development, with investigators working with small groups of adolescents to gain a deeper understanding of what research and the research process means to them.

This portfolio of work demonstrates the importance of investing resources in projects which utilize qualitative research methods. We must advance our understanding of stakeholder perspectives to complement the existing and ongoing body of research in intervention design aimed at improving child health. While developing and implementing feasible, sustainable interventions in various settings to improve child health is essential, without the proper understanding of stakeholder perspectives, researchers run the risk of devoting extensive resources to interventions which will not in fact impact health, perhaps because the intervention components are not salient to the participants, or the intervention itself is not appealing to the target population, for example. Unless more resources and attention are directed towards research utilizing qualitative methods to deeply investigate stakeholder perspectives, we cannot develop interventions that will be most impactful for promoting optimal health outcomes. 

Suggested Citation

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, PolicyLab. The Importance of Qualitative Research [Online]. Available at: http://www.policylab.chop.edu [Accessed: plug in date accessed here].