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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Qualitative description – the poor cousin of health research?

Mette Asbjoern Neergaard1*, Frede Olesen1, Rikke Sand Andersen1 and Jens Sondergaard2

Author Affiliations

1 The Research Unit for General Practice, Aarhus University, Bartholins Allé 2, DK-8000 Aarhus, Denmark

2 Department and Research Unit of General Practice, University of Southern Denmark, J.B. Winsløws Vej 9, DK-5000 Odense C, Denmark

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2009, 9:52  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-9-52

Published: 16 July 2009



The knowledge and use of qualitative description as a qualitative research approach in health services research is limited.

The aim of this article is to discuss the potential benefits of a qualitative descriptive approach, to identify its strengths and weaknesses and to provide examples of use.


Qualitative description is a useful qualitative method in much medical research if you keep the limitations of the approach in mind. It is especially relevant in mixed method research, in questionnaire development and in research projects aiming to gain firsthand knowledge of patients', relatives' or professionals' experiences with a particular topic. Another great advantage of the method is that it is suitable if time or resources are limited.


As a consequence of the growth in qualitative research in the health sciences, researchers sometimes feel obliged to designate their work as phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography or a narrative study when in fact it is not. Qualitative description might be a useful alternative approach to consider.