A scoping review of Q-methodology in healthcare research

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2021 Jun 21;21(1):125. doi: 10.1186/s12874-021-01309-7.


Background: Q-methodology is an approach to studying complex issues of human 'subjectivity'. Although this approach was developed in the early twentieth century, the value of Q-methodology in healthcare was not recognised until relatively recently. The aim of this review was to scope the empirical healthcare literature to examine the extent to which Q-methodology has been utilised in healthcare over time, including how it has been used and for what purposes.

Methods: A search of three electronic databases (Scopus, EBSCO-CINAHL Complete, Medline) was conducted. No date restriction was applied. A title and abstract review, followed by a full-text review, was conducted by a team of five reviewers. Included articles were English-language, peer-reviewed journal articles that used Q-methodology (both Q-sorting and inverted factor analysis) in healthcare settings. The following data items were extracted into a purpose-designed Excel spreadsheet: study details (e.g., setting, country, year), reasons for using Q-methodology, healthcare topic area, participants (type and number), materials (e.g., ranking anchors and Q-set), methods (e.g., development of the Q-set, analysis), study results, and study implications. Data synthesis was descriptive in nature and involved frequency counting, open coding and the organisation by data items.

Results: Of the 2,302 articles identified by the search, 289 studies were included in this review. We found evidence of increased use of Q-methodology in healthcare, particularly over the last 5 years. However, this research remains diffuse, spread across a large number of journals and topic areas. In a number of studies, we identified limitations in the reporting of methods, such as insufficient information on how authors derived their Q-set, what types of analyses they performed, and the amount of variance explained.

Conclusions: Although Q-methodology is increasingly being adopted in healthcare research, it still appears to be relatively novel. This review highlight commonalities in how the method has been used, areas of application, and the potential value of the approach. To facilitate reporting of Q-methodological studies, we present a checklist of details that should be included for publication.

Keywords: Factor analysis; Healthcare; Mixed methods; Patient perspectives; Q-methodology; Qualitative methods; Subjectivity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Checklist
  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Health Services Research*
  • Humans
  • Peer Review
  • Research Design