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How to embed qualitative research in trials: insights from the feasibility study of the SAFER trial programme

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Hoare, Sarah 
Modi, Rakesh 
Williams, Kate 
Dymond, Andrew 


Abstract: Qualitative research can enhance the design, conduct and interpretation of trials. Despite this, few trials incorporate qualitative methods, and those that do may not realise their full potential. In this commentary, we highlight how qualitative research can contribute to the design, conduct and day-to-day running of a trial, outlining the working arrangements and relationships that facilitate these contributions. In doing so, we draw on (i) existing frameworks on the role of qualitative research alongside trials and (ii) our experience of integrated qualitative research conducted as part of the feasibility study of the SAFER trial (Screening for Atrial Fibrillation with ECG to Reduce stroke), a cluster randomised controlled trial of screening people aged 70 and above for atrial fibrillation in primary care in England. The activities and presence of the qualitative team contributed to important changes in the design, conduct and day-to-day running of the SAFER feasibility study, and the subsequent main trial, informing diverse decisions concerning trial documentation, trial delivery, timing and content of measures and the information given to participating patients and practices. These included asking practices to give screening results to all participants and not just to ‘screen positive’ participants, and greater recognition of the contribution of practice reception staff to trial delivery. These changes were facilitated by a ‘one research team’ approach that underpinned all formal and informal working processes from the outset and maximised the value of both qualitative and trial coordination expertise. The challenging problems facing health services require a combination of research methods and data types. Our experience and the literature show that the benefits of embedding qualitative research in trials are more likely to be realised if attention is given to both structural factors and relationships from the outset. These include sustained and sufficient funding for qualitative research, embedding qualitative research fully within the trial programme, providing shared infrastructure and resources and committing to relationships based on mutual recognition of and respect for the value of different methods and perspectives. We outline key learning for the planning of future trials. Trial registration: Screening for atrial fibrillation with ECG to reduce stroke ISRCTN16939438 (feasibility study); Screening for atrial fibrillation with ECG to reduce stroke – a randomised controlled trial ISRCTN72104369.



Commentary, Qualitative research with trials, Atrial fibrillation, Frameworks, Working relationships

Is Part Of


BioMed Central
Programme Grants for Applied Research (RP-PG-0217-20007)
NIHR School for Primary Care Research (SPCR-2014-10043, project 410)
Horizon 2020 (NO 847770)
Health Foundation (RG88620)
Wellcome Trust (203921/Z/16/Z)