Reflections of a rehabilitation professional: research 3 – qualitative research

Firstly, a big thank you to the VRA member who wrote to me saying that she had changed her feedback questionnaire in the light of my last reflection – it is always good to know that someone is reading what one has written!

You will have noticed that my last reflection started off with open questions, leaving the detailed questions till later. Open questions can often give important answers – some of which you might not have anticipated – and so can be very valuable. Analysis of such data can be very straight forward and a useful starting point is from the British Medical Journal [1]. This review assumes that the interviewer will have extensive time and the ability to tape record interviews, but my experience has been that ‘content analysis’ from either written or verbal data collection can be relatively simple.

I have twice used this approach wearing a management, rather than a clinical, hat on and in both times produced reviews that were found to be helpful to the organisations involved. The first was a hospital trust that was interested in knowing how managers were using the trust sickness absence policy as it was called in those days.  I interviewed every 5th manager from the list of 50+ managers given my by human resources starting with the most senior and going down to any manager above ward manager level. Although this only resulted in about 11 interviews, answers from the open-ended questions varied from ‘the policy is quite useless and I use my own system of monitoring absence’ to ‘yes I use it’ and on to ‘Policy, POLICY! –  I don’t have time for policy – I’m into crisis management’!  Plenty of evidence there that the absence policy was not being used as intended by the organisation – indeed evidence of poor management! An interesting example of the well known ‘mismatch’ between an organisation’s great policies and the way they are understood and utilised by the lower eschelons of management within the business.

On another occasion, I was introduced to a VR company in a leadership position and asked to create my own job description. I therefore interviewed all the key staff to find out how they viewed the company – warts and all. The use of simple ‘content analysis’ of the areas brought up from open ended questions was thought to be very helpful to the management.

Let us suppose you ask a question e.g.

Question: Were there any ways in particular that you feel the the vocational rehabilitation you received was helpful?

Answer: Before I met Agatha (invented name for my vocational rehabilitation professional (VRP)), I felt depressed and unable to see any potential way back to work. By explaining to me how I could be helped back to work my mood improved and I felt much more confident in myself.

This answer gives evidence about ‘mood’, ‘returning to work’ (RTW) and ‘confidence’ and thus this sentence, or parts of it, can go into three tables relating to these three concepts.

Of course, your feedback questionnaire may ask whether your disadvantaged Individual (DI) felt any changes in their self-confidence, but if it doesn’t, then your open-ended question outlines an area of practice that you may not have considered before.

Taking the issue of confidence as an example, you can then link that to the areas of basic data that I suggested you routinely record about your DI  e.g. age, gender, ethnic background,  poverty, medical conditions etc.

Next month I will try and look at issues relating to the analysis of directly answered questions – quantitive research.

May I wish all VRPs a wonderful and professionally successful 2021?

I am happy to discuss any of the issues raised in these reflections with colleagues who can email me and head the email VRA – professional reflections.

Andrew Frank

Trustee and Past-Chair, VRA



  1. Pope, C., S. Ziebland, and N. Mays, Qualitative research in health care: analysing qualitative data. BMJ, 2000. 320(8 January): p. 114-116.