Qualitative research is a broad term that covers many methods of gathering information. There are two major themes that link all qualitative research methods together: the phenomena is studied in its natural setting and the phenomena are studied in all their complexity (1). The goal of qualitative research is often to determine the perspectives of the individuals involved with a phenomena, identifying common themes that tie the situation together.
Qualitative methods are chosen when the researcher wishes to describe, interpret, verify, or evaluate a situation (1). It is important to note that qualitative research rarely allows for a researcher to define a cause-and-effect relationship (1). Qualitative research can answer more abstract questions, such as are the physicians happy with the new CPOE system or do the patients feel that the surgery they underwent has improved the quality of their lives.
Qualitative Research in Clinical Informatics
Qualitative studies are very useful in the clinical setting, as issues are either too complex to study or too prohibitively expensive to conduct using quantitative methods. In qualitative research, the potential sources of information are only limited by the researcher (1). Conducting interviews allows the research group to identify previously unconsidered issues, and can gauge the success of a project in more human terms.
See the paper by Sittig for an example of a qualitative study. Another example would be a paper on Perceived efficiency impacts following electronic health record implementation: an exploratory study of an urban community health center network
Types of Studies
There are many types of qualitative studies, several of which are listed below.
- Case study: a study of a specific individual, program, or event.
- Ethnography: a study of an entire group.
- Phenomenological study: a study of the perceptions, perspectives, and understandings of the individuals involved in a particular situation (1).
- Content analysis: a study to examine the contents of a specific body of material to systematically identify patterns, themes, or biases (1).
- Historical research: studies the meaning of past events in an attempt to interpret the facts and explain the cause of events, and their effect in the present events.
- Analytic induction
- Leedy PD, Ormrod JE. Practical research planning and design. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc; 2010.
- Wikipedia (2011). Qualitative research. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualitative_research
- Sittig DF, Krall M, Kaalaas-Sittig J, Ash JS. Emotional aspects of computer-based provider order entry: a qualitative study. J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2005 Sep-Oct; 12(5): 561-7.
Qualitative technique: Case Study Research 
Emotional aspects of Computer Provider Order Entry: a qualitative study.