Background: Recently, there has been a surge of international interest in combining qualitative and quantitative methods in a single study--often called mixed methods research. It is timely to consider why and how mixed methods research is used in health services research (HSR).
Methods: Documentary analysis of proposals and reports of 75 mixed methods studies funded by a research commissioner of HSR in England between 1994 and 2004. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews with 20 researchers sampled from these studies.
Results: 18% (119/647) of HSR studies were classified as mixed methods research. In the documentation, comprehensiveness was the main driver for using mixed methods research, with researchers wanting to address a wider range of questions than quantitative methods alone would allow. Interviewees elaborated on this, identifying the need for qualitative research to engage with the complexity of health, health care interventions, and the environment in which studies took place. Motivations for adopting a mixed methods approach were not always based on the intrinsic value of mixed methods research for addressing the research question; they could be strategic, for example, to obtain funding. Mixed methods research was used in the context of evaluation, including randomised and non-randomised designs; survey and fieldwork exploratory studies; and instrument development. Studies drew on a limited number of methods--particularly surveys and individual interviews--but used methods in a wide range of roles.
Conclusion: Mixed methods research is common in HSR in the UK. Its use is driven by pragmatism rather than principle, motivated by the perceived deficit of quantitative methods alone to address the complexity of research in health care, as well as other more strategic gains. Methods are combined in a range of contexts, yet the emerging methodological contributions from HSR to the field of mixed methods research are currently limited to the single context of combining qualitative methods and randomised controlled trials. Health services researchers could further contribute to the development of mixed methods research in the contexts of instrument development, survey and fieldwork, and non-randomised evaluations.