What lies behind a significant volume of hospital readmissions? What makes a service present a good healthcare praxis? What obstacles are there when changing to a healthcare model such as in major out-patient surgery which encourages patients to go home on the same day as their operation? Do managers and nursing staff have the same opinion about what efficiency is in an operating theatre? What is the perception of professionals of the possible benefits of people-centred attention?
Do we all see a dragon?
Reality is complex and therefore approaches are needed which facilitate the interpretation and understanding of that reality. With qualitative research, places can be reached otherwise unattainable when using other methodological aproximations. When answering questions like those we asked ourselves previously, a truly qualitative approach is required. We need to make the approach using an adequate and credible technique to validate the process of all those involved and to ensure precision in results as is done in quantitative research but not forgetting that we need to be critical and independent in the analysis made.
We will briefly outline the evolution of the qualitative approaches in the context of the assessment of health services. A reflection on the usefulness of qualitative techniques in the assessment of health services or medical technologies is not a new one and you can find a series on this subject in the British Medical Journal of 1995 and in the Health Technology Assessment report of 1998.
Health assessment agencies have given great importance to questions about the scientific evidence available when talking about the efficiency and safety of treatments and biomedical interventions of a clinical nature. Randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews are considered to be the reference standards for causal atributions of the benefits of an intervention for the improvement in the health status of patients.
Society has evolved and the needs of the system adapt to this. We formulate new questions related to the preferences and expectations of users facing treatment and how different professionals contribute to providing better results in patient health care. One must bear in mind that when assessing the benefits and results of attention given, many factors come into play.
In this context, the paradigm of evidence based medicine and the supposed superiority of quantitative approaches and of some study designs above others, have created obstacles in the application of qualitative research. In this sense, the letter to the editors of the British Medical Journal signed by more than 70 researchers of reference for giving their support to qualitative research is clear proof of this remaining obstacle.
Questioning the efficacy of a medical drug cannot be answered using a qualitative approach but we can broaden the scope of questions that we pose ourselves.
For example, we can consider asking ourselves questions, among others, about the preferences of patients, the perception of the benefits of a medical drug, the expectations or opinion of professionals that prescribe it or the possible reasons for a low adherence of the medical drug.
Another scenario could be that of a patient with osteoarthritis who has undergone a knee replacement (arthroplasty) and who is being attended by several professionals such as the primary care doctor, the traumatologist surgeon, the anaesthetist, the nurse, the physiotherapist and other professionals if the patient has other comorbidities. That patient has certain preferences and expectations which need to be understood and then give the health care to cover those needs, which can go beyond the mere surgical procedure.
With qualitative research we develop a discourse, texts, opinions and perceptions of people, communities, with images, perspectives, ideologies and complexities. We must guarantee rigour and that the photograph and interpretation of reality that we make remain valid and coherent for the research group and the populaton or group of people that we are assessing.
The application of qualitative techniques has been on the rise using interviews, semi-structured questionnaires, field notes, focus or discussion groups to gather the opinion of different groups of professionals and users.
From my point of view, there are three examples which can be of great use to know the approach and the process in carrying out an assessment of services with a qualitative approach:
- Opinions, experiences and perceptions of citizens regarding waiting lists
- Job satisfaction or productivity, a study exploring the opinions of different professional profiles regarding the efficiency of operating theatres
- What opinion do professionals have of the benefits of an integrated attention in the United Kingdom?
Avoiding the classic metrics means being able to measure in an alternative or complementary way by combining different approaches be they qualitative or quantitative. I find the introduction to qualitative research we find in René Brown’s TED talk the power of vulnerability. This qualitative researcher recommends we measure that which is apparently unmeasurable and go more in depth into the complex phenomenon of vulnerabilty.
We broaden perspectives by understanding the reality from within, by bearing in mind the multiple existing points of view to improve that which is disfunctional or by identifying better practices to spread them. We can measure what we want to measure. It will be necessary to adapt the approach to the context and audiences and to continue progressing to show with rigour and practice the usefulness of qualitative approaches.
We continue learning. This time, it has been at the Congrés Iberoamericà de Recerca Qualitativa en Salut (in Twitter #IICS2016) held in Barcelona, 5-7 September. The Agència de Qualitat i Avaluació Sanitàries de Catalunya (AQuAS) and the Agència de Salut Pública de Catalunya (ASPCAT) shared the stand to explain their experiences.
Post written by Vicky Serra-Sutton (@vserrasutton), sociologist PhD in AQuAS.