Most of us have, at some point, imagined what a movie about our life might look like.
What people in your life would be lead characters?
What genre would the movie be?
Who would play the lead -- you?
If we are going to have a life movie, someone must write the screenplay. If someone else writes it, how will she get to know you? Will she write your story based on your demographic characteristics, your geographic location, your health diagnoses, even how many traffic tickets you have received? Or will she want to know more about you -- experiences, perspectives, reactions? Chances are, she will want both types of information about you.
In the world of research, the first kind of data mentioned above is called quantitative, and the second is qualitative.
When considering responses to public health needs, we often use quantitative data such as demographic characteristics, regional or geographic information, data about disease and the groups most at risk for the disease, and other statistical information to make decisions about how to address community health needs. And this is a good course of action. This type of quantitative information helps us understand the risk to various populations, as well as the correlation between behaviors and/or social determinants and certain diseases or public health needs.
Using this information, health entities can plan for patient care and prepare for community disease transmission and prevalence. This information lets us know the prevalence of opioid abuse in our community, the number of people who do not have health insurance, the percentage of people who have received the COVID vaccine, and a myriad of additional information that helps our healthcare professionals prepare for and address healthcare problems and disease.
While this data offers many opportunities to build effective public health responses, there is something missing -- the people behind the data. As illustrated in the first paragraph, an individual’s story cannot be adequately told based on demographic characteristics, medical diagnoses, or census data.
Qualitative data collection allows participants to tell their own story in their own words. Questions are open-ended and do not rely on choosing an answer among some preconceived answer set that may or may not contain the most accurate response for that individual, such as in a survey.
This is not to say that qualitative health studies are nonexistent; there are numerous qualitative studies that have received attention and have helped shape the public health landscape.
Moreover, it is important to remember the contributions of qualitative research to healthcare and the importance of collecting qualitative data in addressing public health needs.
I attended a webinar recently by Lisa Bowleg, a scholar of public health and public policy. Dr. Bowleg shared 10 important components of effective research. One of those components was to use a critical qualitative lens. She reminded us that the people we hope to help when developing healthcare responses are the experts about their own experiences.
Deneece Ferrales, Ph.D., is director of health initiatives with Prosper Waco.