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Qualitative Research and PPI – Some similarities, quite a lot of differences!

Qualitative Research and PPI – Some similarities, quite a lot of differences!

01 December 2020

Rohini Terry, Qualitative research adviser and Jo Welsman, PPI Lead, RDS South West

Have you ever wondered – or been asked – about the differences between patient and public involvement (PPI) activities and qualitative research? Both aim to include patients and the wider public in research which is relevant to their lives and experiences. Some assume that conducting either PPI or qualitative research negates the need for the other. For example, that seeking PPI input throughout the life cycle of a research project, (reviewing patient information sheets, interpreting data, supporting dissemination) can substitute for a qualitative research component. Similarly, that conducting qualitative research to explore the lived experiences of patients and health professionals means that PPI is no longer required. This is not true, both PPI and qualitative research uniquely add to and augment the research process, bi-directionally complementing and influencing one another.

Comparing and contrasting PPI and qualitative research

The NIHR defines public involvement in research as “Research being carried out ‘with’ or ‘by’ members of the public rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them. Qualitative research, employing a wide range of methodologies, seeks to address questions relating to “why?”, “how?” and, “for whom?”Qualitative research aims to “study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (Denzin and Lincoln 1994, p2).

There are similarities in the ways some qualitative research and PPI activities are carried out and both result in a deeper understanding of issues from a patient or broader public perspective However, crucially, the intent of these activities is different.

Qualitative research addresses research questions through the collection and formal analysis of non-numerical data from participants using predefined methodology.
PPI addresses issues and uncertainties about the research through the involvement of the public. In this way PPI aims to improve the design and conduct of research rather than providing data to answer research questions.

In response to conversations with regional RDS advisers and researchers seeking to understand, explain and write appropriately about PPI and qualitative research in grant applications, RDS SW Advisers Jo Welsman (PPI), Rohini Terry (Qualitative) and Helen Burchmore (PPI) have produced a brief guide aimed at clarifying the different but complementary roles of the two approaches – in particular the characteristics of PPI workshops vs qualitative focus groups. This guide (available soon via your regional RDS) is the first of four projects that comprise the RDS national priority work for PPI being led by Jo Welsman. Other projects will focus on:

  • harmonising the administration of RDS funds to support researchers with high quality public involvement in developing their research ideas and applications
  • creating a code of conduct for PPI professionals working with public contributors
  • producing some initial guidance towards safeguarding, training and supervision for PPI professionals.


How the RDS can help

We can help you identify, plan and carry out PPI activities and can discuss possible ways to conduct qualitative research, addressing challenges and making the most of opportunities afforded by rapid advances in IT use and application. A previous RDS blog Public involvement during a pandemic: how we are supporting researchers highlighted some of these and a recent crowdsourced document Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic provides more ideas for innovative ways to conduct both fieldwork and PPI activities when face to face methods are difficult.

We have both qualitative and PPI advisers who can work with you to help explore the ways in which qualitative research and PPI activities can enhance your research. Every project is unique, and we are able to tailor our advice to meet the specific objectives of your proposed research. Contact your local RDS for support. 

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