How is involvement different to qualitative research?

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Let me count the ways…

Last week I gave a couple of talks about involvement to researchers in Denmark. In the Q&A session, one researcher commented, “There is nothing new here. It’s just qualitative research. We’ve been doing that for years”. I’ve had this comment before and never felt I had a good enough answer…

Now I can point people to the excellent paper that just came out on this topic from Canada, which describes the many practical differences between these two activities.

But I wonder if there is another distinction that could be added to the list… For me it comes down to whose knowledge is being improved. With qualitative research the aim is to contribute to general knowledge and awareness adding to a body of evidence. By way of contrast, involvement often improves the knowledge of a specific individual.

A good example of this comes from a published report of the impact of involvement on a funding bid [1]. The researchers in this example consulted a PPI group about a project on the social and financial implications of carpal tunnel syndrome. A patient in the group explained how she had lost her job taking blood samples, because she had lost her fine finger movement through carpel tunnel syndrome. This was a revelation to these researchers! They hadn’t considered people’s working lives in their proposal. So they changed it and ultimately the project got funded.

Such an insight could have come from qualitative research and could have already been published as data. There must be countless research publications that describe how health conditions generally impact on work. But the point in this example was that these particular researchers didn’t know that. It was a specific gap in their knowledge and understanding. Other researchers may not have had this gap, and would have come to the group with a different proposal.

One conclusion from this, is that involvement can’t be carried out in the same way as qualitative research, where one person in the team ‘does the PPI’, and then reports back with the ‘results’. Every researcher needs to work with patient and carers, because each one might have different gaps in their knowledge and awareness. This also means that different members of a research team might find that the impact of involvement is not the same…

[1] Carter et al. (2012) Mobilising the experiential knowledge of clinicians, patients and carers for applied health-care research. Contemporary Social Science, 8:3, 307-320.

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