Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Beyond exploratory: a tailored framework for designing and assessing qualitative health research
  1. Katharine A Rendle1,
  2. Corey M Abramson2,
  3. Sarah B Garrett3,
  4. Meghan C Halley4,
  5. Daniel Dohan3
  1. 1Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
  2. 2School of Sociology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA
  3. 3Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA
  4. 4Palo Alto Medical Foundation for Health Care Research and Education, Palo Alto, California, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Katharine A Rendle; katharine.rendle{at}


The objective of this commentary is to develop a framework for assessing the rigour of qualitative approaches that identifies and distinguishes between the diverse objectives of qualitative health research, guided by a narrative review of the published literature on qualitative guidelines and standards from peer-reviewed journals and national funding organisations that support health services research, patient-centered outcomes research and other applied health research fields. In this framework, we identify and distinguish three objectives of qualitative studies in applied health research: exploratory, descriptive and comparative. For each objective, we propose methodological standards that may be used to assess and improve rigour across all study phases—from design to reporting. Similar to hierarchies of quality of evidence within quantitative studies, we argue that standards for qualitative rigour differ, appropriately, for studies with different objectives and should be evaluated as such. Distinguishing between different objectives of qualitative health research improves the ability to appreciate variation in qualitative studies and to develop appropriate evaluations of the rigour and success of qualitative studies in meeting their stated objectives. Researchers, funders and journal editors should consider how further developing and adopting the framework for assessing qualitative rigour outlined here may advance the rigour and potential impact of this important mode of inquiry.

  • qualitative research
  • patient-centered outcomes research
  • health services research

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Presented in Earlier version presented at the 2016 Academy Health Annual Research Meeting in Boston, MA, USA.

  • Contributors All authors (KAR, CMA, SBG, MCH and DD) helped to design and conceptualise this work including reviewing guidelines and conceptualising the proposed framework. KAR drafted the manuscript, and CMA, SBG, MCH and DD provided substantial review and writing to revisions.

  • Funding This work was funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Award (ME-1409-22996).

  • Disclaimer The views presented in this article are solely the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), its Board of Governors or Methodology Committee. Funders had no role in the collection, analysis and interpretation of the data; in the writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the paper for publication.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.