Chapter 5: Qualitative descriptive research

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify the key terms and concepts used in qualitative descriptive research.
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of qualitative descriptive research.

What is a qualitative descriptive study?

The key concept of the qualitative descriptive study is description.

Qualitative descriptive studies (also known as ‘exploratory studies’ and ‘qualitative description approaches’) are relatively new in the qualitative research landscape. They emerged predominantly in the field of nursing and midwifery over the past two decades.1 The design of qualitative descriptive studies evolved as a means to define aspects of qualitative research that did not resemble qualitative research designs to date, despite including elements of those other study designs.2

Qualitative descriptive studies describe phenomena rather than explain them. Phenomenological studies, ethnographic studies and those using grounded theory seek to explain a phenomenon. Qualitative descriptive studies aim to provide a comprehensive summary of events. The approach to this study design is journalistic, with the aim being to answer the questions who, what, where and how.3

A qualitative descriptive study is an important and appropriate design for research questions that are focused on gaining insights about a poorly understood research area, rather than on a specific phenomenon. Since qualitative descriptive study design seeks to describe rather than explain, explanatory frameworks and theories are not required to explain or ‘ground’ a study and its results.4 The researcher may decide that a framework or theory adds value to their interpretations, and in that case, it is perfectly acceptable to use them. However, the hallmark of genuine curiosity (naturalistic enquiry) is that the researcher does not know in advance what they will be observing or describing.4 Because a phenomenon is being described, the qualitative descriptive analysis is more categorical and less conceptual than other methods. Qualitative content analysis is usually the main approach to data analysis in qualitative descriptive studies.4 This has led to criticism of descriptive research being less sophisticated because less interpretation is required than with other qualitative study designs in which interpretation and explanation are key characteristics (e.g. phenomenology, grounded theory, case studies).

Diverse approaches to data collection can be utilised in qualitative description studies. However, most qualitative descriptive studies use semi-structured interviews (see Chapter 13) because they provide a reliable way to collect data.3 The technique applied to data analysis is generally categorical and less conceptual when compared to other qualitative research designs (see Section 4).2,3 Hence, this study design is well suited to research by practitioners, student researchers and policymakers. Its straightforward approach enables these studies to be conducted in shorter timeframes than other study designs.3 Descriptive studies are common as the qualitative component in mixed-methods research (see Chapter 11) and evaluations (see Chapter 12),1 because qualitative descriptive studies can provide information to help develop and refine questionnaires or interventions.

For example, in our research to develop a patient-reported outcome measure for people who had undergone a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), which is a common cardiac procedure to treat heart disease, we started by conducting a qualitative descriptive study.5 This project was a large, mixed-methods study funded by a private health insurer. The entire research process needed to be straightforward and achievable within a year, as we had engaged an undergraduate student to undertake the research tasks. The aim of the qualitative component of the mixed-methods study was to identify and explore patients’ perceptions following PCI. We used inductive approaches to collect and analyse the data. The study was guided by the following domains for the development of patient-reported outcomes, according to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, which included:

      • Feeling: How the patient feels physically and psychologically after medical intervention
      • Function: The patient’s mobility and ability to maintain their regular routine
      • Evaluation: The patient’s overall perception of the success or failure of their procedure and their perception of what contributed to it.5(p458)

We conducted focus groups and interviews, and asked participants three questions related to the FDA outcome domains:

      • From your perspective, what would be considered a successful outcome of the procedure?

Probing questions: Did the procedure meet your expectations? How do you define whether the procedure was successful?

      • How did you feel after the procedure?

Probing question: How did you feel one week after and how does that compare with how you feel now?

      • After your procedure, tell me about your ability to do your daily activities?

Prompt for activities including gardening, housework, personal care, work-related and family-related tasks.

Probing questions: Did you attend cardiac rehabilitation? Can you tell us about your experience of cardiac rehabilitation? What impact has medication had on your recovery?

      • What, if any, lifestyle changes have you made since your procedure?5(p459)

Data collection was conducted with 32 participants. The themes were mapped to the FDA patient-reported outcome domains, with the results confirming previous research and also highlighting new areas for exploration in the development of a new patient-reported outcome measure. For example, participants reported a lack of confidence following PCI and the importance of patient and doctor communication. Women, in particular, reported that they wanted doctors to recognise how their experiences of cardiac symptoms were different to those of men.

The study described phenomena and resulted in the development of a patient-reported outcome measure that was tested and refined using a discrete-choice experiment survey,6 a pilot of the measure in the Victorian Cardiac Outcomes Registry and a Rasch analysis to validate the measurement’s properties.7

Advantages and disadvantages of qualitative descriptive studies

A qualitative descriptive study is an effective design for research by practitioners, policymakers and students, due to their relatively short timeframes and low costs. The researchers can remain close to the data and the events described, and this can enable the process of analysis to be relatively simple. Qualitative descriptive studies are also useful in mixed-methods research studies. Some of the advantages of qualitative descriptive studies have led to criticism of the design approach, due to a lack of engagement with theory and the lack of interpretation and explanation of the data.2

Table 5.1. Examples of qualitative descriptive studies

Title Coping and support-seeking in out-of-home care: qualitative study of the views of young people in care in England8 Engaging patients and informal caregivers to improve safety and facilitate person-and family centred care during transitions from hospital to home – a qualitative descriptive study9
First author
and year
Hiller, 2021 Backman, 2019
CC Licence CC BY 4.0 CC BY NC 3.0
Aim 'To explore the experiences of these young people within the care system, particularly in relation to support-seeking and coping with emotional needs, to better understand feasible and acceptable ways to improve outcomes for these young people.' [abstract]

'To describe patients’ and informal caregivers’ perspectives on how to improve and monitor care during transitions from hospital to home in Ottawa Canada' [abstract]
'1) where do young people in care seek support for emotional difficulties, both in terms of social support and professional services?

(2) what do they view as barriers to seeking help? and

(3) what coping strategies do they use when experiencing emotional difficulties?'(p2)
Not stated
Why a qualitative descriptive study was implemented Young people in out-of-home care represent an under-researched group. A qualitative descriptive approach enabled exploration of their views, coping and wellbeing to inform approaches to improve formal and informal support. Part of a larger study that aimed to prioritise components that most influence the development of successful interventions in care transition.
Study setting and country Two local authorities in England Canada
Data collection, sampling and participants Opportunity sampling was used used to invite participants from a large quantitative study to participate in an interview.

Semi-structured interviews with 25 young people.
Semi-structured telephone interviews with 8 participants (2 patients; 6 family members) recruited by convenience sampling.

Interviews ranged from 45–60 minutes were audio recorded.
Analysis Reflexive thematic analysis Thematic analysis
Key themes Broader experience of being in care

Centrality of social support to wellbeing, and mixed views on professional help

Use of both adaptive and maladaptive day-to-day coping strategies
Need for effective communication between providers and patients or informal caregivers

Need for improving key aspects of the discharge process

Increasing patient and family involvement

Suggestions on how to best monitor care transitions


Qualitative descriptive studies are gaining popularity in health and social care due to their utility, from a resource and time perspective, for research by practitioners, policymakers and researchers. Descriptive studies can be conducted as stand-alone studies or as part of larger, mixed-methods studies.


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  2. Lambert VA, Lambert CE. Qualitative descriptive research: an acceptable design. Pac Rim Int J Nurs Res Thail. 2012;16(4):255-256. Accessed June 6, 2023.
  3. Doyle L et al. An overview of the qualitative descriptive design within nursing research.J Res Nurs. 2020;25(5):443-455. doi:10.1177/174498711988023
  4. Kim H, Sefcik JS, Bradway C. Characteristics of qualitative descriptive studies: a systematic review. Res Nurs Health. 2017;40(1):23-42. doi:10.1002/nur.21768
  5. Ayton DR et al. Exploring patient-reported outcomes following percutaneous coronary intervention: a qualitative study. Health Expect. 2018;21(2):457-465. doi:10.1111/hex.1263
  6. Barker AL et al. Symptoms and feelings valued by patients after a percutaneous coronary intervention: a discrete-choice experiment to inform development of a new patient-reported outcome. BMJ Open. 2018;8:e023141. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023141
  7. Soh SE et al. What matters most to patients following percutaneous coronary interventions? a new patient-reported outcome measure developed using Rasch analysis. PLoS One. 2019;14(9):e0222185. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0222185
  8. Hiller RM et al. Coping and support-seeking in out-of-home care: a qualitative study of the views of young people in care in England. BMJ Open. 2021;11:e038461. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-038461
  9. Backman C, Cho-Young D. Engaging patients and informal caregivers to improve safety and facilitate person- and family-centered care during transitions from hospital to home – a qualitative descriptive study. Patient Prefer Adherence. 2019;13:617-626. doi:10.2147/PPA.S201054