Types of research
Research in health and social care tends to adopt the methods of social science research because the projects often involve investigating people’s feelings, perceptions, attitudes etc., which do not lend themselves to investigation by scientific methodology.
Laboratory-based research into diseases and disorders, using tissues and chemicals, is likely to be based on scientific method until such time as the research needs to involve people. Your project for this unit is most likely to follow a social science approach.
Quantitative research involves numbers and measuring quantities or amounts. Scientific method often involves quantitative data – for example, measuring changes in the body’s physiology in laboratory analyses of blood or urine samples. Measures of weight and height can be used to calculate body mass index to find out whether an individual is a healthy weight.
Quantitative research may also involve finding out, for example:
• frequency or how many times something happens in a given period, usually expressed as per minute, per hour, per day, and so on (e.g. minutes of exercise per day or number of falls per year or population data such as the number of deaths in a year from stroke)
• how many individuals there are in a particularly category (e.g. smokers or non-smokers)
• information involving more complex equipment and processes such as analysing a sample of blood tomeasure its haemoglobin content to assess whether a patient is anaemic or not.
Quantitative research requires the use of specific measurement instruments. Measurements gathered routinely are sometimes recorded on charts, which can reveal how small variations between individual measurements may add up to a more noticeable change over a longer period. Body temperature, for instance, may change over a day or body weight over a few weeks. Multiple-choice questions, with specific answer options, can generate data that can be analysed quantitatively; questionnaires are often used for this purpose.
Qualitative research involves gathering data that cannot be easily quantified and instead can only be recorded using language. Qualitative data tends to be collected using unstructured interviews, audio recording of conversations or narrative observations.
An individual’s feelings or emotions may be evident through observing facial expression but can really only be fully understood by letting the individual describe how they feel.
In routine practice, health professionals gather both qualitative and quantitative data and use both types of information to make judgements about the individual’s care and treatment. Every conscious patient admitted to a hospital ward is interviewed by a doctor, who takes notes about the patient’s experience of their illness – their medical ‘history’. The doctor may have received information second-hand (e.g. from a GP’s letter or from the accident and emergency team) but the doctor who is overseeing the patient’s care on a ward needs to hear the patient themselves describe their experience of their illness, even if the doctor supplements this information by obtaining quantitative data from blood samples and other investigations, often called ‘tests’. Only the patient can describe their symptoms; pain is only experienced by the sufferer and can therefore only be described by that individual. If the patient is not conscious, then the health worker has to rely on descriptive information provided by relatives or whoever is available.
In a research study, researchers often attempt to express qualitative data about individuals and their experiences in quantitative ways. Examples of this might be:
• using a rating scale to quantify the severity of pain
• completing a questionnaire to find out an individual’s experience of using a health or social care service
• recording how often a specific event or behaviour happens (its frequency).
Primary research involves seeking new knowledge that has not been previously published. The researcher gathers new data from participants or by examining objects, materials or data in a different way from previous studies. For example, interviewing individuals in their twenties about their experiences of health education in school as teenagers could help devise a new policy for health education. A study repeating one carried out thirty years previously would be primary research that was relevant to young people now, rather than young people as the world was for an earlier generation. Using a new technique that enables traces of a specific chemical to be identified in blood or urine samples might produce new understanding of a disease.
Primary research in health and social care often involves gathering data from individuals. Surveys using questionnaires and interviews are commonly used techniques and participants may be users of services, staff working in the services or members of the public.
Given that research is about finding out new information or understanding, a researcher needs to know what the existing information and understanding about the topic is, as published in books, journals and on the Internet. Secondary research is essential for any research project. All researchers need to read widely around their subject of interest so that they are aware not just of long-established knowledge but also of new knowledge that is emerging while they are doing their own research. Research carried out by researchers in universities and other research establishments may take several years to complete and report in full. Small-scale research projects can be completed more quickly but need to be clearly defined in order to produce results that can be analysed and reported within a few months.
Now complete the quiz to consolidate your knowledge