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What is a qualitative research study?

A qualitative study is one that collects and looks at qualitative data – essentially, words! Researchers will talk to people to learn about their thoughts, beliefs, and experiences in their own words. This information can help researchers, healthcare providers, and people who design policies and programs know things like:

  • What life is like for people impacted by a health condition
  • How people feel about social issues
  • How to design programs so that they fit with people’s lives.

How are qualitative research studies different from other types of studies?

Sometimes, questions are best answered by clinical trials or by looking at statistics or numbers. These kinds of studies are called quantitative research. Other times, questions are best answered by hearing about people’s experiences and perspectives in their own words. This is where qualitative studies come in!

For example, let’s say we want to study we want to better understand people’s exercise habits.

In a quantitative study, meaning one focused on numbers, we might study questions like:

  • What percent of people exercise regularly?
  • What is the average number of minutes people exercise each week?
  • How do these numbers vary between people of different socioeconomic statuses?

In a qualitative study, we might study questions like:

  • How do people feel about exercise?
  • What things prevent people from exercising?
  • What strategies help people exercise?

Together, these questions can paint a richer picture of what is happening. If we know that some groups of people exercise less than others, we don’t necessarily know why that is the case. If we talk to people directly, we can better understand their experiences, challenges they face, and strategies that are helpful. This information may help us design more effective programs to encourage exercising.

How is a qualitative research study conducted?

In qualitative research, we study the experiences, stories, and perspectives that people share with researchers – this is qualitative data. Usually, researchers will collect qualitative data by talking to people through interviews or focus groups. Interviews are one-on-one conversations where researchers ask people about their experiences and thoughts related to a certain topic. Focus groups are similar, except that the conversation happens with a group of people. Interviews and focus groups can happen in-person or virtually (over the phone or on an online platform like Zoom). Researchers usually record these conversations so that they can transcribe them, meaning write them out word for word. Generally, they will remove people’s names and other identifying information from the transcripts. Then they review the de-identified transcript data and identify concepts or themes from across all the conversations.

While this is the most common type of qualitative study, there are lots of other ways to do qualitative research too! For example, researchers can study what people write in journals or surveys, or even look at drawings or photos people have created about their experiences.

How is qualitative research shared?

Researchers will summarize the information they learned from their conversations, often by writing a report or paper. This summary will not include people’s names but might include quotations or stories people shared. This lets healthcare providers, researchers, and others better understand how people think and feel about different topics. This understanding can help us develop and improve healthcare delivery, programs, and policies. Participating in a qualitative research study is a great way to share your story and contribute to improving health!

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