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Thematic analysis of qualitative research data: Is it as easy as it sounds?

Abstract

Issue

We are seeing the use of qualitative research methods more regularly in health professions education as well as pharmacy education. Often, the term “thematic analysis” is used in research studies and subsequently labeled as qualitative research, but saying that one did this type of analysis does not necessarily equate with a rigorous qualitative study. This methodology review will outline how to perform rigorous thematic analyses on qualitative data to draw interpretations from the data.

Methodological Literature Review

Despite not having an analysis guidebook that fits every research situation, there are general steps that you can take to make sure that your thematic analysis is systematic and thorough. A model of qualitative data analysis can be outlined in five steps: compiling, disassembling, reassembling, interpreting, and concluding.

My Recommendations and Their Applications

Nine practical recommendations are provided to help researchers implement rigorous thematic analyses.

Potential Impact

As researchers become comfortable in properly using qualitative research methods, the standards for publication will be elevated. By using these rigorous standards for thematic analysis and making them explicitly known in your data process, your findings will be more valuable.

Keywords

QualitativeThematic analysis

Issue

We are seeing the use of qualitative research methods more regularly in health professions education, as well as pharmacy education.1 Moreover, researchers recognize that qualitative methods provide “a source of well-grounded, rich descriptions and explanations of processes in identifiable local contexts”2meaning the descriptions arise from the data but provide insight that goes beyond only numbers. Additionally, mixed-methods approaches combining qualitative and quantitative data analyses are becoming more popular in health professions practice and education.3

Qualitative research has been used in fields like education, sociology, and anthropology for some time and has, excitedly, gained more traction in the health research and health professions education fields but remains under utilized.24 This lag in adoption is likely due to the skepticism regarding the rigor of such methods from researchers, including pharmacists, who are more accustomed to quantitative research methods using statistical tests to “prove” an outcome and/or provide validity and reliability evidence.5 While quantitative research tends to focus on the frequency, intensity, or duration of a behavior, qualitative research methods allow us to explore the beliefs, values, and motives that explain why the behaviors occur. The primary aim of qualitative research is to gain a better understanding of phenomenon through the experiences of those who have directly experienced the phenomenon, recognizing the value of participants’ unique viewpoints that can only be fully understood within the context of their experience and worldview. The value of this approach to empirical research is that it provides a richer, deeper understanding of the meanings that people place on actions, events, and relationships.6 In academic medical education in general and in pharmacy education specifically, qualitative methods are used to explore the complex phenomenon encountered by faculty, students, patients, and policymakers