Qualitative research seeks to understand and interpret personal experiences, behaviours, interactions, and social contexts to explain the phenomena of interest, such as the attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives of patients and clinicians; the interpersonal nature of caregiver and patient relationships; the illness experience; or the impact of human suffering (Wong et al., 2004).
Qualitative evidence extracts information useful in clinical decision making when it comes to issues related to whether an activity is feasible, appropriate or meaningful. Meaningfulness relates to the personal experience, opinions, values, thoughts, beliefs and interpretations of clients.
Source: Wong, S. S-L., Wilczynski, N. L., & Haynes, R. B. (2004). Developing optimal search strategies for detecting clinically relevant qualitative studies in Medline. In M. Fieschi, E. Coiera, & Y-C. J. Li (Eds.), MedInfo 2004: Proceedings of the World Congress on Medical Informatics: Part 1 (Vol. 107, pp. 311-314). IOS Press. http://ebooks.iospress.nl/volume/medinfo-2004
Phenomenology looks at human perception and subjectivity and focuses on the ‘lived experience’ of the individual concerned. Data of the participant’s experience is collected using a focused but non-structured interview. The interviews are transcribed verbatim and then researchers try to identify the main themes of experience and derive meaning and knowledge from the phenomena.
Grounded theory involves the discovery of a theory through the analysis of data. It is a research method that is almost opposite to the traditional social science research in that it does not begin with a hypothesis but starts with data collection through a variety of methods. From the data collected, the key points are marked with a series of codes which are grouped into similar concepts. From these concepts categories are formed which form the basis for the creation of a theory or hypothesis.
Ethnography is used to study groups of people who share social and cultural characteristics; think of themselves as a group;and share common language, geographic locale and identity. Ethnography provides a ‘portrait of the people’. It involves participant observation, the recording of field notes and interviewing key informants.
Action research asks the question, “What is happening here and how could it be different?” It is a process of reflecting on the world to change it followed by evaluation. Data collected can be both qualitative and quantitative. Themes, issues and concerns are extracted and discussed by both the research team and the participating group.
Source: Hoffmann, T., Bennett, S., & Mar, C. (2013). Evidence-based practice across the health professions (2nd ed). Elsevier Australia.
You can begin to build your search strategy by translating the significant concepts from your research question into a concept grid.
Sample topic: What are teenagers’ attitudes to quitting smoking?
|Concept 1: Teenagers||Concept 2: Smoking cessation|
Alternative (similar) keywords
Authors often use different terms to describe the same concept. When searching it is important to consider alternative terms (synonyms) and spelling variations which may be used. Similar terms can be added to the grid beneath the relevant concept:
|Concept 1: Teenagers||Concept 2: Smoking cessation|
Combining search terms with AND and OR
You can structure your search using AND and OR to combine your keywords:
Database search tips
Once you have developed your search strategy, you can then use the methods below to find qualitative literature on your topic. Combine your topic search with:
You can combine your topic search terms with keywords relating to qualitative studies. Some terms to consider are: Perceptions; Attitudes; Viewpoints; Opinions; Beliefs; Understanding; Feelings; Experiences. Eg:
Also think about qualitative methodologies (e.g. ethnography) or methods for data collection (e.g. focus group).
If you are not finding what you need using qualitative keywords, then you may want to consider searching with subjects headings as well. Subject headings are standardised terms, taken from a thesaurus, which are used to describe the topic/s and research methodologies covered in each article.
As they aim to reflect the content of the full article, searching with qualitative subject headings can be more precise than a keyword search in identifying qualitative research articles. Subject headings are also useful to overcome differences in terminology as similar terms are grouped under one heading (e.g. Health services research is applied to articles which include the terms action research, health care research, medical care research, or health services evaluation ).
CINAHL is a database of nursing and allied health literature. To search using keywords, combine your topic search with qualitative keywords.
To search using qualitative subject headings:
To search using qualitative subject headings in the Ovid databases (Medline, Embase, PsycINFO etc.):
This information is pertinent to researchers who are carrying out a qualitative systematic review.
A qualitative systematic review is a review based on a clearly formulated question. It uses systematic and reproducible methods to identify, select and critically appraise all relevant research, and to collect and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review. Qualitative systematic reviews derive data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focus on the meanings and interpretations of the participants.
It is recommended that you check whether a systematic review on your question has already been conducted or is currently being undertaken. Checking existing reviews/protocols ensures that you are not repeating someone else’s work. This may also help you in choosing or refining a review topic. Look for existing systematic reviews/protocols in:
The PICO (Patient, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) framework is commonly used to develop focused clinical questions for quantitative systematic reviews. A modified version, PICo, can be used for qualitative questions.
What are caregivers’ experiences with providing home-based care to patients with HIV/AIDS in Africa?
P - Caregivers providing home-based care to persons with HIV/AIDS
Co - Africa
Use the following worksheet to create a search strategy:
The SPIDER framework is an alternative search strategy tool (based on PICo) for qualitative/mixed methods research.
What are the experiences of women undergoing IVF treatment?
S - Women
PI - IVF treatment
D - Questionnaire or survey or interview
E - Experiences or views or attitudes or feelings
R - Qualitative or mixed method
Beyond PICO: The SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis Cooke, A., Smith, D., & Booth, A. (2012)
PICO, PICOS and SPIDER: A comparison study of specificity and sensitivity in three search tools for qualitative systematic reviews Methley, A. M., Campbell, S., Chew-Graham, C., McNally, R., & Cheraghi-Sohi, S. (2014)
SPICE can be used for both qualitative and quantitative studies. SPICE stands for Setting (where?), Perspective (for whom?), Intervention (what?), Comparison (compared with what?) and Evaluation (with what result?).
What are the coping skills of parents of children with autism undergoing behavioural therapy in schools?
S - Schools
P - Parents of children with autism
I - Behavioural therapy
C - None
E - Coping skills
When searching the literature for a qualitative systematic review, the following sources should be considered:
When undertaking a qualitative systematic review it is recommended to use a search filter.
A filter is a standardised search strategy that is designed to be used in conjunction with a subject search to retrieve valid studies from the (primary) medical or health sciences literature. Filters work in one of two ways by:
Methodological search filters focus on the methods of qualitative research rather than the content. They can be:
Click the tabs in this box to find out how to search with filters in the CINAHL, Medline, PsycINFO and PubMed databases.
Perform a search for your topic then filter the search by selecting either Qualitative - High Sensitivity, Qualitative - High Specificity or Qualitative - Best Balance from the Clinical Queries search option.
Perform a search for your topic then select Additional Limits in the search box. Under Clinical Queries select either Qualitative (maximizes sensitivity), Qualitative (maximizes specificity) or Qualitative (best balance of sensitivity and specificity). Click on Limit A Search to apply the filter to your topic search.
Copy and paste the following search string into PsycINFO and combine with your topic search.
(((“semi-structured” or semistructured or unstructured or informal or “in-depth” or indepth or “face-to-face” or structured or guide or guides) adj3 (interview* or discussion* or questionnaire)).ti,ab,id. or (focus group or qualitative or ethnograph* or fieldwork or “field work” or “key informant”)).ti,ab,id. or exp qualitative research/ or exp interviews/ or exp group discussion/ or qualitative study.md. not “Literature Review”.md.
Copy and paste the following search string into PubMed and combine with your topic search.
(((“semi-structured”[TIAB] OR semistructured[TIAB] OR unstructured[TIAB] OR informal[TIAB] OR “in-depth”[TIAB] OR indepth[TIAB] OR “face-to-face”[TIAB] OR structured[TIAB] OR guide[TIAB] OR guides[TIAB]) AND (interview*[TIAB] OR discussion*[TIAB] OR questionnaire*[TIAB])) OR (“focus group”[TIAB] OR “focus groups”[TIAB] OR qualitative[TIAB] OR ethnograph*[TIAB] OR fieldwork[TIAB] OR “field work”[TIAB] OR “key informant”[TIAB])) OR “interviews as topic”[Mesh] OR “focus groups”[Mesh] OR narration[Mesh] OR qualitative research[Mesh] OR “personal narratives as topic”[Mesh]
PubMed Health Services Research Queries
An important aspect of undertaking a systematic review is to provide a clear report of your search strategy. The STARLITE mnemonic may be used to ensure that all essential elements for reporting your literature search are included.
|Type of studies||
|Range of years||
|Inclusion and exclusion||
Appraising qualitative evidence requires an assessment of the quality of the research in relation to the research methodology, methods and analyses used and the interpretation of data. The following checklists are useful critical appraisal tools, each consisting of ten criteria: