Objectives: Synthesizing qualitative research is an important means of ensuring the needs, preferences, and experiences of patients are taken into account by service providers and policy makers, but the range of methods available can appear confusing. This study presents the methods for synthesizing qualitative research most used in health research to-date and, specifically those with a potential role in health technology assessment.
Methods: To identify reviews conducted using the eight main methods for synthesizing qualitative studies, nine electronic databases were searched using key terms including meta-ethnography and synthesis. A summary table groups the identified reviews by their use of the eight methods, highlighting the methods used most generally and specifically in relation to health technology assessment topics.
Results: Although there is debate about how best to identify and quality appraise qualitative research for synthesis, 107 reviews were identified using one of the eight main methods. Four methods (meta-ethnography, meta-study, meta-summary, and thematic synthesis) have been most widely used and have a role within health technology assessment. Meta-ethnography is the leading method for synthesizing qualitative health research. Thematic synthesis is also useful for integrating qualitative and quantitative findings. Four other methods (critical interpretive synthesis, grounded theory synthesis, meta-interpretation, and cross-case analysis) have been under-used in health research and their potential in health technology assessments is currently under-developed.
Conclusions: Synthesizing individual qualitative studies has becoming increasingly common in recent years. Although this is still an emerging research discipline such an approach is one means of promoting the patient-centeredness of health technology assessments.
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