ABSTRACT: Have you ever wondered how researchers decide how to investigate a condition or problem? Or how they come up with claims such as, 'Obese women are more likely to have babies with birth defects', or the fact we advise clients that the likelihood of their bitch developing mammary cancer is dramatically reduced by spaying before her second season?

How do we know that most clients choose their veterinary surgery by picking the one closest to home? Have you ever stopped and considered how these conclusions have been reached?

An important way of looking at claims like these is to consider whether the researchers have used a quantitative or qualitative method. Some researchers may even use both. It is really important when reading research conclusions – whether in the media or in a peer-reviewed journal – that you consider the methodology the researchers have chosen.

This allows you to think about how valid the research is, and whether the claims of the researchers should be believed. Understanding research is an important component of any healthcare professional’s job, so that you can select the right advice for your clients and patients.

You may also need to think about different methodological approaches when deciding how to investigate your own research question – and a research project is likely to be a component of a higher level degree programme, such as veterinary nursing. Your choice of method should not, however, be predetermined. You should decide what you want to find out, and then choose whether a qualitative or quantitative method is appropriate.

Quantitative research

When a researcher uses a quantitative method, statistical analysis of numerical data will be used to reach a conclusion. An hypothesis (the ‘research question’) is formed and an experiment or series of tests are carried out in order to generate the data for analysis. Alternatively, events which have already occurred are analysed numerically in order to obtain data. The conclusion is then deduced from this analysis, which can be done with many different statistical tests. The hypothesis is either proven or disproven.

Quantitative research can take place in a laboratory or in the field. All licensed drugs we use in practice have undergone rigorous testing and analysis to confirm their efficacy in a quantitative fashion, in order to gain a licence from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

It is common to see claims from drug companies such as ‘there is a statistically significant reduction in symptoms when x is used instead of y’. This conclusion has been deduced from the experiment performed, after statistical analysis of the data generated.

Qualitative research

In contrast, qualitative research does not involve analysis of numbers and use of statistics. Instead, data take the form of words and description, and qualitative researchers look for the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’. A qualitative approach is often used when an event or actions need explaining.

It is not necessary to begin the process with the generation of an hypothesis. Instead of deducing a conclusion, an inductive process occurs in which theories are generated during the research process. Sample sizes are often much smaller than those used by quantitative researchers, and this means that results may not be applicable in other situations (not ‘generalisable’). However, the data collected are often of huge volume, and very complex.

Qualitative researchers don’t usually work in laboratories – they are often social scientists, who consider people and what makes us behave in certain ways. Some researchers will choose to use both quantitative and qualitative approaches during a study – the quantitative approach will give them an answer to the ‘what’ part of the study, and this is then explained using a qualitative approach – the ‘why’. This is quite common in surveys, where as well as ticking boxes, you may be asked to provide a free text response.

A sociological researcher wanted to find out why farm animal vets were happy to get muddy and dirty in their everyday practice, and how they managed to do this without losing respect from their clients. She spent several weeks in a farm practice observing the vets and practice staff in order to induce a reason.

Her data came from conversations she had with the vets, and observations she made of them in the practice environment. She found that the muck and mud was considered to be a sign of prestige to the vets, which gave them authority over others, and a better position in the hierarchy of the practice.

Qualitative research will often involve researchers carrying out interviews or focus groups. You may have been involved in a market research focus group, where you are asked to discuss your opinions on a certain product – this is qualitative research. Qualitative methodology can also require the researcher to immerse his or herself in a situation or culture in order to research exactly what is happening within a particular group of individuals – this approach is called ethnography.

Interviews are a useful way to gain an insight into a certain situation or event. When the RCVS wanted to review the NVQ qualification for veterinary nurses in 2005, interviews were carried out by an independent researcher to gauge people’s ideas and opinions. An interviewer may have a distinct set of questions, but often semi-structured interviews are preferred. In this situation, although the interviewer has a preliminary set of questions, the interview will very much depend on the answers given by the interviewee – if a certain interesting response comes up, this can be explored.

Once data have been obtained, they are usually transcribed into text if, for example, an audio recording has been made. This text is then analysed for different themes, until distinct ideas or opinions are collated. Often these themes

may direct where the research goes next, until a final theory emerges.

Comparing qualitative and quantitative data

Study 1 – Thornton

The subject of this study is Thornton, a chocolate Labrador retriever (Figure 1). Table 1 demonstrates the different data which could be obtained relating to this subject. The quantitative data have been collected through measurement and clinical record analysis, whilst the qualitative data has been collected through an interview with his owner.

Figure 1: Thornton. (Image courtesy of University of Nottingham)

 Study 2 – potentiated amoxycillin tablets

The subject of this study is potentiated amoxycillin palatable tablets (Synulox – Pfizer), an antibiotic with which every practice is familiar (Figure 2). The data are shown in Table 2.

Figure 2: Potentiated amoxycillin palatable tablets

The quantitative data have been obtained from the product data sheet, which has been written following a rigorous testing process in order to obtain a licence. The qualitative data have been obtained from interviews with veterinary nurses and veterinary surgeons using the tablets.

So which should you use?

As we have seen, both quantitative and qualitative data can prove very useful when considering any topic or research question that needs answering. Quantitative data give a positivistic, ‘black and white’ view of the world, whereas qualitative data are more descriptive and useful in different ways.

There is much debate between researchers about which approach is ‘best’, but in reality this depends on what needs to be discovered. Both give us answers, and both can give us more questions! The most important thing is that, when looking at any research finding, you consider how that conclusion has been reached – and don’t forget this can be done well or badly in either methodological approach!

However, this is an essential initial step in the process of deciding just how much you believe claims which are regularly presented to you as a professional, and how you are going to investigate important questions in your practice.


Liz Mossop

BVM&S MMedScilClin Ed) MAcadMEd MRCVS

Liz Mossop is a lecturer in clinical veterinary education at Nottingham Veterinary School.

She graduated from Edinburgh in 2000 and spent several years in equine and mixed practice before becoming a foundation member of staff at the new vet school. She teaches a mixture of clinical and professional skills, and carries out educational research. She has a Master's degree in Medical Education and is completing her PhD in veterinary professionalism.


1.   GUNN-MOORE, D. A. and CAMERON, M. E. (2004) A pilot study using synthetic feline facial pheromone for the management of feline idiopathic cystitis. Journal of Feline Medicine anc Surgery 6:133-138.

2.   HAMILTON, L. (2007) Muck and Magic – cultural transformations in the world of farm animal veterinary surgeons. Ethnography 8:485-501

Further reading

BELL, J. (2005) Doing your research project. Oper University Press, Maidenhead HEK, G. and MOULE, P. (2006) Making sense of research – an introduction for health and social care practitioners. Sage, London.

GOLDACRE, B. (2009) Bad Science. Fourth Estate, London.

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 25 • Noll • November 2010 •