Qualitative health research: when numbers alone are not enough


Qualitative approaches can generate non-predetermined findings that illuminate the context, take into account the perspective of the actors and allow us to answer questions derived from epidemiological studies or illuminate the design of interventions.

 Why do some colon cancer screening programs succeed and others fail? Why don't adults with diabetes receive the indicated medication? What factors hinder the adoption of evidence-based practices for perinatal care? Why do so many couples know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, but do not take care of themselves?

These are just some examples of scientific research questions in the field of health that require an approach. qualitative, that is, a set of rigorous techniques and methods that produce non-predetermined findings without being based on statistical procedures or any other form of quantification.

Mark Twain popularized a phrase in the late 19th century: “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Of course, we know that this is an unfair accusation. And that the development of complex quantitative methods has generated an extensive knowledge base to understand phenomena such as population growth, the distribution of morbidity and many aspects of human behavior that determine health and disease.

However, each new finding leads to more questions and other research problems that often require a different approach to data collection and analysis. An approach that satisfies in particular the need to scratch beneath the surface and help us interpret, for example, why a “well-designed” program does not have the expected impact in practice. Or how to implement in a specific population a certain health promotion, prevention and care strategy whose effectiveness has been proven in another context.

The growing demand for qualitative research is driven by many factors, including advances in cross-cultural knowledge about health and behavior, global health profiles, and increased awareness of human rights issues. A quick search of the PubMed database reflects this trend: in 2010 there were 1514 articles that included the terms “qualitative study”; by 2014 and 2018, that number had already grown to 3.001 and 4.750, respectively.

Qualitative research consumes time and works on small groups of people, so the results are not necessarily generalizable to the entire population. However, it is an invaluable tool to provide more detailed and rich information from the perspective of the subjects, observing the context and social meaning and how programs and other health strategies affect individuals.

By Lic. María Belizan, social communicator, master in social sciences and health and coordinator of the Qualitative Health Research Unit.