Evaluating meta-ethnography: systematic analysis and synthesis of qualitative research

Health Technol Assess. 2011 Dec;15(43):1-164. doi: 10.3310/hta15430.


Background: Methods for reviewing and synthesising findings from quantitative research studies in health care are well established. Although there is recognition of the need for qualitative research to be brought into the evidence base, there is no consensus about how this should be done and the methods for synthesising qualitative research are at a relatively early stage of development.

Objective: To evaluate meta-ethnography as a method for synthesising qualitative research studies in health and health care.

Methods: Two full syntheses of qualitative research studies were conducted between April 2002 and September 2004 using meta-ethnography: (1) studies of medicine-taking and (2) studies exploring patients' experiences of living with rheumatoid arthritis. Potentially relevant studies identified in multiple literature searches conducted in July and August 2002 (electronically and by hand) were appraised using a modified version of the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme questions for understanding qualitative research. Candidate papers were excluded on grounds of lack of relevance to the aims of the synthesis or because the work failed to employ qualitative methods of data collection and analysis.

Results: Thirty-eight studies were entered into the medicine-taking synthesis, one of which did not contribute to the final synthesis. The synthesis revealed a general caution about taking medicine, and that the practice of lay testing of medicines was widespread. People were found to take their medicine passively or actively or to reject it outright. Some, in particular clinical areas, were coerced into taking it. Those who actively accepted their medicine often modified the regimen prescribed by a doctor, without the doctor's knowledge. The synthesis concluded that people often do not take their medicines as prescribed because of concern about the medicines themselves. 'Resistance' emerged from the synthesis as a concept that best encapsulated the lay response to prescribed medicines. It was suggested that a policy focus should be on the problems associated with the medicines themselves and on evaluating the effectiveness of alternative treatments that some people use in preference to prescribed medicines. The synthesis of studies of lay experiences of living with rheumatoid arthritis began with 29 papers. Four could not be synthesised, leaving 25 papers (describing 22 studies) contributing to the final synthesis. Most of the papers were concerned with the everyday experience of living with rheumatoid arthritis. This synthesis did not produce significant new insights, probably because the early papers in the area were substantial and theoretically rich, and later papers were mostly confirmatory. In both topic areas, only a minority of the studies included in the syntheses were found to have referenced each other, suggesting that unnecessary replication had occurred.

Limitations: We only evaluated meta-ethnography as a method for synthesising qualitative research, but there are other methods being employed. Further research is required to investigate how different methods of qualitative synthesis influence the outcome of the synthesis.

Conclusions: Meta-ethnography is an effective method for synthesising qualitative research. The process of reciprocally translating the findings from each individual study into those from all the other studies in the synthesis, if applied rigorously, ensures that qualitative data can be combined. Following this essential process, the synthesis can then be expressed as a 'line of argument' that can be presented as text and in summary tables and diagrams or models. Meta-ethnography can produce significant new insights, but not all meta-ethnographic syntheses do so. Instead, some will identify fields in which saturation has been reached and in which no theoretical development has taken place for some time. Both outcomes are helpful in either moving research forward or avoiding wasted resources. Meta-ethnography is a highly interpretative method requiring considerable immersion in the individual studies to achieve a synthesis. It places substantial demands upon the synthesiser and requires a high degree of qualitative research skill. Meta-ethnography has great potential as a method of synthesis in qualitative health technology assessment but it is still evolving and cannot, at present, be regarded as a standardised approach capable of application in a routinised way.

Funding: Funding for this study was provided by the Health Technology Assessment programme of the National Institute for Health Research.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural / methods*
  • Anthropology, Cultural / standards
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / psychology
  • Biomedical Research / methods*
  • Biomedical Research / standards
  • Databases, Bibliographic
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections / psychology
  • Health Services Research / methods*
  • Health Services Research / standards
  • Humans
  • Medication Adherence / psychology
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*
  • Observer Variation
  • Qualitative Research*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sickness Impact Profile