Qualitative research has the potential to contribute important new knowledge to care near the end of life, but research is often hampered by questions about how best to protect dying patients and their family members who serve as research subjects. Due to lack of familiarity with the techniques of ethnographic or observational research, as well as concerns about the vulnerability of the dying, members of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are often unable to evaluate the benefits and potential harms of studies. In addition, policies derived from standards based on interventional medical research or clinical trials may be applied inappropriately. We offer comprehensive recommendations aimed at improving the translation of human subjects guidelines into meaningful protections for subjects in qualitative studies, including education for IRBs. Policies must be flexible and should be guided by empirical findings documenting the actual impact of research participation, rather than a priori assumptions about patient vulnerability. Sensitive topics, such as drug use, may require added protections.