While there is an encouraging trend towards greater use of qualitative methods in funding applications - evident particularly in the growth of mixed methods research - the focus remains mostly on using familiar methods of interviews or focus groups. Far less consideration is given to the value of utilising methods such as ethnographic approaches, linguistic analyses, participatory designs, and creative methods - and yet, a rapid search of the NIHR Funding and Awards database has highlighted projects that are demonstrating ways in which these more innovative designs can ‘reach the parts’ that traditional methods cannot.
For example, an NIHR Research for Patient Benefit funded study of doctor-patient communication in oncology demonstrated how Conversation Analysis of recorded consultations enabled researchers to study the micro-dynamics of the in-situ consultation process, enriching interview data of patients’ and doctors’ perceptions of that process.
A study currently funded by the NIHR Policy Research Programme is using Photovoice, a creative participatory research method that enables research participants to express themselves visually instead of only verbally through interviews. The aim of the study is to better understand ethnically-diverse service users’, carers’ and professionals’ explanations for the causes of - and preventive approaches to reduce - compulsory admissions in adult mental health services.
Another study, funded by an NIHR Career Development Award, is an in-depth ethnographic case study of patients’ and professionals’ experiences and practices of polypharmacy (where patients with multimorbidity are prescribed a number of different medications). It uses Video-Reflexive Ethnography, an approach that enables clinicians to reflect and feedback on their video-recorded consultations, to inform development of evidence-based resources to increase clinicians' confidence in managing polypharmacy, and patient resources to promote public understanding.
These are just three examples of the rich potential of qualitative methods that go beyond the standard, conventional ones of interviews and focus groups. And whilst there is sometimes still a sense in the overall landscape of health research that qualitative research plays second fiddle to the positivist methodologies of trials, the ‘take home’ message of this blog is that there is growing support, both in terms of NIHR funding and expert advice from the Research Design Service (RDS), for those researchers wanting to branch out and explore innovative ways of addressing important research questions about the detail of social and communicative practices.
This year NIHR has launched a qualitative workstream of the Methodology Incubator, aimed at supporting researchers’ training and development and increasing research capacity.
Another useful resource for researchers interested in extending their knowledge and use of qualitative research methods is the Qualitative Applied Health Research Centre at King’s College London.
And finally, RDS specialist advisers, have recently produced a list of useful resources on innovative qualitative methods, providing links to online training materials, recommended readings and toolkits.