Loud and Clear: Qualitative Methods Research Affinity Group Gives Research a Voice

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Scientific research can be so much more than just the facts. A new research affinity group at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia launched this summer to help investigators use qualitative research methods and techniques to reach a deeper understanding of patient and family attitudes, beliefs, and preferences that will give their quantitative research findings a “human voice.”

If you think of a picture in a coloring book, quantitative research would be the drawing’s solid outlines, and qualitative research would be the shaded colors. Together, the two methodologies can help to create a fuller picture of a research problem and possible interventions or solutions.

Over the last decade, healthcare professionals have recognized the value of both kinds of research. Quantitative research findings are based on numerical data and statistics to demonstrate whether a particular intervention successfully reached a designated outcome. Qualitative research aims to describe the implications of these measurements and how or why the outcomes were achieved.

In pediatric research, a mixed-methods research approach can be particularly valuable because parents’ or caregivers’ viewpoints can be poles apart from a child’s or adolescent’s perspective, not to mention the goals of providers and a hospital system.

“Qualitative research opens opportunities to understand the impact of health and wellness and disease from different perspectives,” said Cynthia Mollen, MD, MSCE, who is leading the new Qualitative Methods Research Affinity Group. “Learning directly from a population about what their needs and goals are can really impact how we care for them.”

Dr. Mollen, an emergency medicine attending physician and an associate professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, used a qualitative research approach when she and colleagues conducted an in-depth interview study about an emergency department-based intervention to improve access to emergency contraception among sexually active teens. The researchers did in-depth interviews with a group of adolescent girls to better understand their attitudes toward information delivery in the ED setting. They learned that the research participants thought using ED visits would be an important opportunity to learn more about pregnancy prevention, but that interventions should target patients coming to the ED with specific chief complaints.

“What was interesting to us, is the study team was thinking that it would be a good idea to provide this type of service to all teens who came to the ED,” Dr. Mollen said. “But what we heard from that group was that they would really be more interested in learning about sexual and reproductive healthcare issues if they were in the emergency room for a complaint that was related to a potential issue that was similar. So that really pivoted our thinking around what kind of intervention we would want to develop moving forward.”

These are the type of “lessons learned” that the Qualitative Methods Research Affinity Group aims to share when they bring together researchers interested in using qualitative research techniques in their work. They will collaborate to provide resources to help facilitate their projects, such as introducing them to qualitative methods software. And they plan to invite speakers who are experts in qualitative methods so that the group can gain new insights and perspectives.

Dr. Mollen also wants to draw upon the expertise that already exists at CHOP by hosting a “Works in Progress” series. Research teams who have experience using qualitative methods will guide others on how to get started, ways to perform data analysis, or ethical issues that they’ve encountered.

“For a long time, qualitative initiatives have popped up and grown in separate pockets across the Research Institute,” Dr. Mollen said. “This groups aims to connect researchers together so that we can learn from each other and build creative and rewarding collaborative relationships.”

One of many resources that the new Research Affinity Group aims to highlight in order to enrich the qualitative work carried out by CHOP researchers is the Family Partners Program. Under the umbrella of CHOP’s department of Patient and Family Experience, research family partners can offer authentic insights about what it’s like to live with an illness or disease that can inform many aspects of qualitative study planning, development, and execution.

“What they do inherently is a qualitative technique, in that they provide in-depth descriptions of what their experiences have been, and the Research Affinity Group could certainly use their help in so many ways,” Dr. Mollen said.

For example, they can assist in determining which health outcomes matter most to patients and families, narrowing down patient groups to select for a study, and deciding on the best ways to phrase research questions.

The creation of this new Research Affinity Group comes at a time of heightened demand for qualitative approaches in research. Funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, have recognized the value of engaging patients and stakeholders into studies and are increasingly asking for investigators to integrate qualitative methods into their proposals.

“There is so much interest in qualitative methods, and we definitely want to be engaging people who want to learn more about it and, within an environment of finite resources, do the best work that they can do,” Dr. Mollen said.

If you want to join the Qualitative Methods Research Affinity Group, contact its coordinator, Katie Kellom. A kickoff event will be held Nov. 16, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the first floor of the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research.

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