An increasing number of qualitative research papers in oncology and palliative care: Does it mean a thorough development of the methodology of research?

Claudia Borreani, Guido Miccinesi, Cinzia Brunelli, Micaela Lina

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Background: In the second half of the nineties, a scientific debate about the usefulness of qualitative research in medicine began in the main medical journals as well as the amount of " qualitative" papers published on peer reviewed journals has noticeably increased during these last years. Nevertheless the label of qualitative methodology has been assigned to an heterogeneous collection of studies. Some of them show a complete awareness of the specificity of this kind of research, while others are still largely influenced by the quantitative paradigm prevailing in the medical field. The concern with the rigour and credibility of qualitative methods has lead to the development of a number of checklist for assessing qualitative research. The purposes of this review were to describe the quality of the development of qualitative research in the medical field, focusing on oncology and palliative care, and to discuss the applicability of a descriptive checklist. Methods: A review was conducted on Medline and PsycINFO databases. On the basis of their abstract, papers found have been classified considering: publication year, kind of journal, paper type, data gathering method, sample size and declared methodological approach. A sub sample of the previous papers was than selected and their methodological characteristics were evaluated based on a descriptive checklist. Results: 351 abstracts and 26 full papers were analysed. An increase over time in the number of qualitative studies is evident. While most of the papers before 1999 were published on nursing journals (43%), afterwards also medical journals were largely represented. Psychological journals increased from 7% to 12%. The 22% of studies used a sample size lower than 15 and the 15% did not specify the sample size in the abstract. The methodological approach was also often not specified and the percentage increased in the second time period (from 73% to 80%). Grounded theory was the most employed methodological approach while phenomenology shows a decrease. Interview remains the most used data gathering method in both periods, even if it shows a 10% reductions, while focus group and multiple methods application both increase to 12%. The use of the descriptive checklist on the full text of the 26 papers shows that all the items present a larger percentage of satisfaction after 1 January 1999 than it was for the paper published before 1999. There seems to be two different types of quality criteria: specific and unspecific. The first ones mainly refer to qualitative paradigm (such as the relationship with the subject of research or evidence about how subjects perceived the research) and they are often not satisfied. In contrast unspecific criteria (such as the connection to an existing body of knowledge or systematic data gathering) which are mainly shared with the quantitative paradigm are more frequently satisfied. Conclusions: In oncology and palliative care the publication of qualitative studies increased during the nineties, reaching its peak in around 2000. The use of descriptive checklists even if it was not easy to apply, allows researchers to get a deeper insight into methodological facets that a global judgement may leave out.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7
JournalHealth and Quality of Life Outcomes
Publication statusPublished - Jan 23 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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