Beyond interviews and focus groups: a framework for integrating innovative qualitative methods into randomised controlled trials of complex public health interventions

Davis, Katy; Minckas, Nicole; Bond, Virginia; Clark, Cari J.; Colbourn, Tim; Drabble, Sarah J.; Hesketh, Therese; Hill, Zelee; Morrison, Joanna; Mweemba, Oliver; Osrin, David; Prost, Audrey; Seeley, Janet; Shahmanesh, Maryam; Spindler, Esther J.; Stern, Erin; Turner, Katrina M.; Mannell, Jenevieve

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are widely used for establishing evidence of the effectiveness of interventions, yet public health interventions are often complex, posing specific challenges for RCTs. Although there is increasing recognition that qualitative methods can and should be integrated into RCTs, few frameworks and practical guidance highlight which qualitative methods should be integrated and for what purposes. As a result, qualitative methods are often poorly or haphazardly integrated into existing trials, and researchers rely heavily on interviews and focus group discussions. To improve current practice, we propose a framework for innovative qualitative research methods that can help address the challenges of RCTs for complex public health interventions.

We used a stepped approach to develop a practical framework for researchers. This consisted of (1) a systematic review of the innovative qualitative methods mentioned in the health literature, (2) in-depth interviews with 23 academics from different methodological backgrounds working on RCTs of public health interventions in 11 different countries, and (3) a framework development and group consensus-building process.

The findings are presented in accordance with the CONSORT (Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials) Statement categories for ease of use. We identify the main challenges of RCTs for public health interventions alongside each of the CONSORT categories, and potential innovative qualitative methods that overcome each challenge are listed as part of a Framework for the Integration of Innovative Qualitative Methods into RCTs of Complex Health Interventions. Innovative qualitative methods described in the interviews include rapid ethnographic appraisals, document analysis, diary methods, interactive voice responses and short message service, community mapping, spiral walks, pair interviews and visual participatory analysis.

The findings of this study point to the usefulness of observational and participatory methods for trials of complex public health interventions, offering a novel contribution to the broader literature about the need for mixed methods approaches. Integrating a diverse toolkit of qualitative methods can enable appropriate adjustments to the intervention or process (or both) of data collection during RCTs, which in turn can create more sustainable and effective interventions. However, such integration will require a cultural shift towards the adoption of method-neutral research approaches, transdisciplinary collaborations, and publishing regimes.


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September 22, 2023


Qualitative method, Complex intervention, Public health, RCTs, Innovation