In this first part of a 3-part discussion paper the working group "Qualitative Methods" in the German Network of Health Services Research (DNVF) identifies the potentials and opportunities qualitative research methods provide for health services research. Many research questions relevant for health services research require the use of qualitative methods. However, the potential of and need for qualitative research in health services research has not yet received sufficient attention from funding bodies. We discuss the applicability and importance of qualitative research for the field of health services research. We then move on to describe the key characteristics of qualitative research that need to be taken into account in health services research. We discuss characteristics such as open-ended (qualitative) data, interpretation of meanings, the search for contradictions, closeness to everyday life, openness towards change or modification of the research question and processes in the context of health services research. To ensure a high-quality approach in qualitative methods for the health services research, sufficient competency in methods and appropriate settings that account for the peculiarities of qualitative methods need to be developed. These include an appropriate time frame and sufficient and qualified personnel to conduct qualitative research. Qualitative research is not a research paradigm in itself rather it comprises of many different and diverging approaches. The goal of this paper is to show the diversity of qualitative research methods, its importance for health services research, and to open up the discussion on strategies for integrating qualitative methods into health services research.
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