On this episode of the Healthy, Wealthy and Smart Podcast, I welcome Prof. Evert Verhagen on the show to discuss qualitative research and how the outcomes can be useful for clinical sports practice. Evert Verhagen is a human movement scientist and epidemiologist. He holds a University Research Chair as a full professor at the Department of Public and Occupational Health of the VU University Medical Center and the Amsterdam Movement Science Research Institute. He chairs the department’s research theme ‘Sports, Lifestyle and Health’, is the director of the Amsterdam Collaboration on Health and Safety in Sports (one of the 11 IOC research centers), and co-director of the Amsterdam Institute of Sports Sciences (AISS).
In this episode, we discuss:
-The difference between qualitative and quantitative research
-How qualitative research influences sports medicine and injury prevention research and clinical practice
-How to design a qualitative research study and control for biases
-What is in store for the future of qualitative research in sports medicine
-And so much more!
For more information on Evert:
Evert Verhagen is a human movement scientist and epidemiologist. He holds a University Research Chair as a full professor at the Department of Public and Occupational Health of the VU University Medical Center and the Amsterdam Movement Science Research Institute. He chairs the department’s research theme ‘Sports, Lifestyle and Health’, is the director of the Amsterdam Collaboration on Health and Safety in Sports (one of the 11 IOC research centers), and co-director of the Amsterdam Institute of Sports Sciences (AISS). His research revolves around the prevention of sports and physical activity related injuries; including monitoring, cost-effectiveness and implementation issues. He supervises several (inter-)national PhDs and post-docs on these topics, and has (co-)authored over 200 peer-reviewed publications around these topics.
Read the full transcript below:
Karen Litzy: 00:00 Hi Evert. Welcome to the podcast. I’m so happy to have you on.
Evert Verhagen: 00:04 Yeah, thank you very much. I’m really happy to be here as well.
Karen Litzy: 00:08 All right, so today we’re going to be talking about qualitative research in mainly sports medicine. But before we even start, can you give the listeners the definitions and perhaps the difference between quantitative research and qualitative research?
Evert Verhagen: 00:30 Sure. I think that is a really valid question to start with. I believe most people are familiar with quantitative research. It is what we do like in the word already, quantification of a problem by counting, by having numerical data or data that we can transform into statistics. And then we can quantify attitudes, opinions, define variables. And we can generalize that across the whole group of our population. So we can generate averages in given populations and we can compare averages between populations. Qualitative research on the other hand, doesn’t go by numbers, it’s more exploratory. And we try to get an understanding of reasons, opinions, motivations and instead of quantifying a problem. So, giving a number to it, giving a magnitude to it, we get insight into the problem and it helps us to develop new ideas and our policies. And that can be a precursor to do a bigger quantitative study in which you have an idea of where to look and where you would like to quantify and get some more thought. But you can also do it afterwards, where you have a quantifiable outcome and you want to understand better what that outcome actually means and what it means to your population and in the population. I think that is in essence the big difference.
Karen Litzy: 02:06 Yeah. Thank you for that. And, now you have had over 200 peer reviewed articles in different journals and you yourself had done a lot of quantitative research. So why the shift now for you into more qualitative research?
Evert Verhagen: 02:22 Oh, it’s not the first time I get asked that question. I’m a trained quantitative research. I’m an epidemiologist. I’m a human movement scientist. So I kind of live and swear by numbers. If I can’t measure it for me, it shouldn’t count that many people think. Now, I learned that through the years, if you can count it, it still doesn’t mean anything. It still needs to have a meaning. So a difference between two groups in a trial, it just gives you the difference between the groups in a trial. It doesn’t tell you how the individuals within that trial actually experienced it. The same with trying to get your head around an injury problems so you can capture an injury problem in incidences in prevalences, in severity, in numbers of days, lost availability during games. But what does it actually mean for the individual athlete?
Evert Verhagen: 03:23 What does it mean for the patient? And the same maybe with treatment outcomes, rehabilitation outcomes. It’s nice to know that, you know, you reach a certain degree of range of motion after rehabilitation or reduced level of pain on a visual analog scale. But what is actually the opinion of, of that patient, does that actually align with what you can measure? And if not, where does the different come from? And if you do, it kind of shows you that you’re in the right direction. And over the years I learned that quantitative research can only help so much in solving the bigger issues we have where it concerns, prevention targets for presumed prevention. It stops at your number and then you need to do something with it. And the only way to do something with this, it’s to understand where it comes from and also to understand what it means. That’s where my interest kind of started.
Karen Litzy: 04:23 Yeah. And that makes a lot of sense coming from myself from the clinical side of things. And I’ll use the VAS scale when you’re looking at pain as let’s say one of those quantitative points. And I think this is a good example. Looking at the VAS scale, a four or five for me is a very different experience for someone else with the four or five out of 10 pain. Right? And so just looking at that number from quantitative research saying, well, this proves that this treatment, whatever it may be reduced pain by, I don’t know, four points on the vas scale. Well, okay, that’s great, but then what does that mean for the individual person and that you’re just moving it because qualitative someone’s opinion. This is an opinion of what my pain is and then we take it to quantitative data, but then it doesn’t say how that patient is living with that pain. The pain has decreased, but I still can’t walk to the store. I still can’t play with my kids. So what does it mean?
Evert Verhagen: 05:27 Exactly. I think that what you just said that is purely qualitative talks about what does it mean, what impact does it have as one little, one little thing I would like to specify is that a VAS scale in essence, which is a subjective outcome measure, is still a quantifiable objective measure. It’s not qualitative and that is something I run into every now and then in a discussion where people seem to think that a subjective outcome on a scale or a subjective outcome measure in a survey is qualitative. It is not you have to look behind those measures. So why does someone report a reduction from eight to four on a visual analog scale? That is what we’re looking at and you’re completely right from eight to four in someone who has a seating job for instance. Mostly behind the computer means something completely different than someone who moves from eight to four who has a really active job and we have four is still really limiting for them.
Evert Verhagen: 06:35 We may go to athletes, for instance, a pain of four today in preseason maybe or at the end of season when there’s no big competitions around, I’m okay, I can skip the training, but a pain of four during competition when has a big game coming up? You probably will suck it up. And even though the pain level is the same, your experience and the burden it gives you is completely different. And those are the things we do work capturing in numbers. And those are the things that make the big difference for the individuals we do our research pool and our target population.
Karen Litzy: 07:14 Yeah. And that actually leads nicely into the next thing I wanted to talk about and that’s, how does qualitative research manifest itself in sports medicine or injury prevention?
Evert Verhagen: 07:25 From the research perspective you mean? Or the practical perspective?
Karen Litzy: 07:28 Let’s take research perspective first.
Evert Verhagen: 07:31 On a research perspective, I think it adds a new layer of information to what we already know. And you can think that in multiple ways. It gives you direction to where you would like to go with future research because you understand better your population, you understand their needs, their wishes, their opinions, their fears. You understand, their foci and based on that you can have more targeted either interventions or more targeted outcome measures to chart a problem or to monitor a problem. So it will guide quantitative research in that sense, which I would say is also really interesting in regards to machine learning and the complexity theories that are out there. We can’t measure everything but if we get a sense already based on the public, the population where we should focus on it will gives direction to those novel technologies where we do data mining and all that.
Evert Verhagen: 08:38 Also on the other hand, if we do interventions or if we do objective measures of what we try to assess in research, we need to find a way to translate that to the population. Research of course it is about putting it in a nice article and publish it in a high impact journal if at all possible. But in the end, and I’m speaking for myself here, I do research because I want to help people, I do research because I have a general question that I feel is valid to ask in relation to an issue or problem I see in athletes. So I want that number to come for athletes as well. And in order to do so, I need to talk to them and get their opinions about how they feel about this number, how they feel they can use it, how they feel they may not be able to use it.
Evert Verhagen: 09:38 And based on that I can develop my next steps and I understand better what I did right, what I did wrong. I understand better what it means actually because I have my own opinion. And that’s why I think qualitative and quantitative are synergetic to each other. Let me give you a clear example, which may be a bridge also to more the practical side of it. Maybe that’s injury definition. If I ask athletes or students and fellow researchers how they would define an injury. Usually they come with the technical definitions. We also have in our manuscripts, like it is tissue damage. It leads to pain. That pain may lead to a diminished performance, maybe a limited availability, which is all fine. And if you ask athletes like, when are you injured? The elite athletes will say, well, pain is actually part of the game.
Evert Verhagen: 10:34 I always have pain. I’m used to that and I know how to deal with that. And I will not think this pain is a problem unless my performance is limited, which is already a little bit of a different injury definition. So the problems we see and we have in terms of pain and availability may not even be the problems they perceive to be problems. So we solving maybe something they don’t even see to be an issue. Now if you translate the same thing to maybe recreational athletes or novus athletes, people who sit on the couch and say, okay, let’s be a bit more active. They’re not used to pain, they’re not used to how their body reacts to physical activity. So we think they have more injuries, but maybe their perception of injuries is simply different from the perception of injuries we see in most of the papers we read. And I think there’s a clear clinical message there is that, perspective, context, experience of the patients you have in front of you determines their perception of the issue they have. But it also determines for you as a clinician what you need to do and how you need to approach that. Because the numbers you see in the quantifiable manuscript that’s all based on averages and not on that one single person in front you. And this is where qualitative research can help a lot to understand that.
Karen Litzy: 11:59 Yeah, and that makes a lot of sense to me. And as a clinician, I think sometimes we can get caught up in the quantitative data and those numbers and lose sight of the person in front of us. Meaning sometimes we may say, and I see this on social media threads and things like that, which I’m sure you’ve seen as well. Well this is the study and this is what the study says. This is what you should be doing with your patient. Yeah. Well, there are a lot of nuances to that because like you said, you’re talking about averages and not the person in front of you. And, I love the example you gave. What is an injury and what does that mean to different stakeholders within, let’s say, injury prevention realm if we will. So the athlete versus the average person versus the clinician?
Karen Litzy: 12:56 Well we have three different definitions of what an injury is. So how can we fill those gaps to be a little bit closer? I mean I can say, let’s say I’m the average person who’s working out. I know I am not anywhere near a professional athlete, but the problem is, and you alluded to it a little bit, is that when people have an injury, they read about an athlete that has an injury and they say, well, this athlete had the injury and they were back at their sport in four weeks. How come I have to wait four months? And I think that’s a big disconnect. And maybe that’s where getting some better qualitative research and around these definitions can actually help with the perception of what an injury is across the board.
Evert Verhagen: 13:49 Yeah, it’s sort of framing but it’s framing from both sides. It’s framing for the patient so you can even better, why it takes for them four months instead of four weeks. Right. And usually in all honesty, by the time a professional athlete is already back training again, a recreational athlete maybe hasn’t even seen a therapist. How then can you take a protocol or a guideline based on evidence that shows that on average after four to six weeks you need to be at a certain stage in the rehabilitation phase where that one single person in front of you as already been looking three weeks for a proper therapist to treat the injury and then they come in and they’ve seen this evidence like you said, but then you would like to know a bit better where they come from, what their context is and what they need to do, which is not shown in evidence is also not what the patient thinks about.
Evert Verhagen: 14:55 So having some knowledge about such perceptions and where they come from and what they mean I think can really help to support you in your clinical practice to use the evidence to a better extent. You know, in some of the issues we have in objective quantifiable research also apply here. I would say there is, for instance the discussion started a couple of years ago about we should screen or not to predicting injury actually to see if someone’s at an increased risk. And one of the main arguments in there is, well basically what we’re doing is we create two normal distributions and normal distribution is the Garcian curve where we think most of the population is in the middle and we have a few outliers and that is nicely distributed. So we have a normal population with our risk factor and a normal population without a risk factor. And if you know, the averages don’t overlap too much, then Oh, we have a significant difference. But that negates the outliers on the top side and on the bottom side of both. And then you talk about an average, but there’s even an equal amount of people who are in that overlapping phase that we still give the average treatment. And if we understand better why these people are on the outskirts and why are they in a position, we can actually make that evidence for them work. Because we can model it to their specific situation.
Karen Litzy: 16:31 Got It. So that qualitative research, like you said, can help to guide quantitative research, which can then help to guide actual treatment practices for the average clinician. In a very simplified, overly simplified nutshell. So yeah, very, very, very oversimplified of nutshell there. Can you give us an example of what a qualitative research project may look like? Can you give an example of what that looks like in it’s sort of set up phase and then throughout the project.
Evert Verhagen: 17:19 Okay. Well in essence, it looks a little bit simpler because for quantitative researching in big groups of people, because of those averages for qualitative research, you need smaller groups. One issue though is in case of how our specific needs, we would like to have groups that are quite specific. So if we have a group of elite athletes combined to recreational athletes and we want know perceptions about injury, like we were already talking about. That doesn’t work because we get too many deviating perceptions in there. So you need to, you need to frame your research question correctly there. And the essence here is that you start doing your interviews until you reached so called saturation. So you do interviews, you get answers, and your next interview will give you a deeper understanding. You get different answers, you get more answers, you can ask a bit further.
Evert Verhagen: 18:18 But at a certain point of time, you start hearing the same thing. So you don’t add any new information. That’s when you’re done. And now, depending on your group or your specific focus, that can happen between eight to 15 interviews. So in that sense, it sounds really easy. Then what do you need to do is you need to type those interviews out. So you need to transcribe them. And then the analysis start. And for most people, this is boring, but this is actually where for qualitative researchers me as I’m a changed person. I like that too, because you start to go, so you start to read through the interviews and you start to look for clues of what people say and what it might mean. Now as we need statistics, there are several philosophies you can follow. The different philosophies make a big difference. The same as in qualitative research, but that on the side.
Karen Litzy: 19:21 So you go through this series of interview questions and you keep narrowing those questions down until you reach a saturation point and then you can start the analysis. And so then my next question was what set of statistics do you use to analyze qualitative research? And this might be a stupid question.
Evert Verhagen: 19:44 No, no, no, no, no. We don’t use statistics. And that’s not a stupid question because, you know, there’s very few ways in qualitative research and arguably the most simple way to go is this so-called thematic analysis. So you do your analysis and you start to find themes in the interviews by coding. So you have overarching themes and within these overarching themes, you find sub themes, and you just report those themes. And that is really interesting because, for instance, if you’re looking for barriers towards implementation of an injury prevention measure, you can say, okay, these are named barriers and these barriers can be categorized as time as disinterest or as non belief in the effectiveness. And then within those main categories you can have sub categories of where that comes from. That’s I would say one of the simplest versions of how we can use qualitative research.
Evert Verhagen: 20:46 Or you can also make it more intricate. You can build models, you can validate models. And for each of those research questions you have, you require a little bit of a different approach thematic analysis is easy. You just sit down, you have just semi structured interview, you ask people, about opinion, about a certain topic, they give you an answer and then basically you say, okay, can you give me an example of that? Can you explain that a little bit further than what you already know, the topics you’re interested in. So you want to talk about barriers or facilitators so you can focus on that. You can also go open minded where you say, okay, I just want to know how elite athletes perceive an injury. So you need a different kind of approach of first you need, you would like to make them feel comfortable that they can talk about it, that it’s a safe environment.
Evert Verhagen: 21:42 You would like to ask them about their previous injuries. So you get a sense of which of those had a high impact. Then you can dive a little bit deeper into, so what did it mean for you? How did you feel, what were the consequences of it personally, how did you recover? Did it take longer or shorter than expected? So you kind of, you kind of follow a story and that story unfolds itself. And if you do it really open, then you can do one interview. It gives you a direction and your thoughts and based on that direction in your thoughts, you look for your next participant and you continue where you were with your previous and then a bigger story unfolds. And that takes a bit more time because you do it by interview. But it’s a lot more deep and rich information. But it all starts with the research question I would say. And it’s different types of research questions that we have in quantitative research. It’s not to compare this to compare that, it’s not how big is this problem, but it’s really diving into beliefs. It’s diving into opinion, diving into reasons. And that can be because of something you did, but that can also be to understand better what’s going on in the minds of people.
Karen Litzy: 23:17 As the interviewer within these studies, how do you control for that interviewers biases? So you know, the leading question. So let’s say you’re doing this long form where you interview someone, you get really in depth, they give you their answers, you go onto the next person. How do you not then guide that next person to kind of be like what the first person said and then the third person, like the first and second person. So how do you control for like leading as an interviewer you can lead the direction of that interview really in any way you want.
Evert Verhagen: 23:52 Exactly. But isn’t that the same in quantitative research? The way you’re framing the question, you can already guide people towards answering questions. A really good example I encountered like last year in a project where the premise was that, there was a funding scheme and the premise was that projects that were driven by questions from practice would have a preference. So they asked in a particular sport and a particular association, two older members. Do you think injury prevention is important? That was the first question in a survey. Of course, everybody says yes. Then the second question was if you think it is important, do you feel that an app on an iPhone would be helpful? Yes or no? Of course. Many people say yes. So their conclusion was okay, 80% wants injury prevention and 80% want that in an app on an iPhone.
Evert Verhagen: 24:51 So we should have a lot of money to develop such an app was well a disaster. Because they finally developed it and they kind of scoped already with the public what they had of an idea. Instead of really have something driven by the audience. And so I think by in that sense, it’s not only applicable to qualitative research. Subjectivity maybe is because you as an interview, have an understanding most of the time on what the topic you’re interested in. And that’s why in qualitative research. You also see a little paragraph on reflection where the interviewer or the authors explain what their background is, where they come from. And of course it’s really hard to take that out of the interviews. It’s practice and it takes a lot of self control. You can tell you that and it’s not always possible. So that’s why you need to be frank upfront that you are a physical therapist and that you ask questions about physical therapy guidance or physical therapy conduct.
Evert Verhagen: 25:58 And of course you have an opinion about them. And also of course it is the connection between interview or an interviewee that is important. If you interview someone who thinks you are a prick, you will not get much, much out of it. But if you have a good connection with someone and you really are empathetic, then they will open up. But that requires experience I would say. We do have some tricks in the analysis to reduce that. Two main tricks that may be of interest to say is we call that triangulation where you’re not only interview patients but you also interview other stakeholders on similar topics and tried to find connections and similarities between answers. Because if three people from different perspectives say the same thing, that must be something that really counts, right? So it’s not one thing and it’s not just one person interpreting. That’s one. And the other one is you can do is multiple coders. So you have one interviewer and you need to code the interviews. But you can do that with two people separately. Much like we do with systematic reviews where you check for the quality of papers. We have two independent reviews and then we compare notes. We can do the same here too. So you take a bit of that subjectivity out and that preoccupation out.
Karen Litzy: 27:21 Yeah. Great. Thank you for that. And now where do you see the future of qualitative research moving?
Evert Verhagen: 27:29 Hmm, that’s an interesting one. For how a specific field I would say it as a lot of ground we have to cover. We’re getting there. There’s a lot of interest in it at the moment. There is more and more papers being published at the moment. One of the, not issues, but one of the fears I have is that most of these papers still get published in not the mainstream sports medicine literature that is being read by the clinicians even though the messages are supposed to be targeted to the clinicians or the therapists. So we need to find ways to grasp that clinical message in such a way that it doesn’t become this lengthy qualitative research paper and it will become a succinct, easy to read paper with a clinical message though with a constructive, strong methodology. We’ve been battling with that for a couple of years now I would say. And, I just got the word this morning from one of our PhDs that she got a full qualitative study accepted in British journal of sports medicine. That’s nice because that was a journal that said one and a half, two years ago. We’re not interested in qualitative research. I think that whole movement is gaining ground and we’re finding ways to communicate our messages that it really is helpful for clinicians and it’s readable by those journals, which I think are a few big steps we have taken.
Karen Litzy: 29:13 Yeah, I would say they’re very huge steps because if the research is there but no one’s reading it and no one’s talking about it, where is it going? It doesn’t make the research any less meaningful, but it doesn’t make it applicable if no one’s reading it cause no one can apply it to their populations.
Evert Verhagen: 29:33 Hmm. But you know, the true theory is it’s still quite difficult because if you want to write a manuscript that has the full qualitative methods and traditional version of the outcomes, in my opinion and probably people will be mad when I say that, it’s kind of dry to read. It’s not really interesting to read. So if you juice that a little bit so it becomes interesting and more concise and easy to digest for the more clinical oriented reader you lose a lot of information that for qualitative reader is required to assess the validity and the reliability of what you did. So we’re kind of in the middle. We need to have suppression of information in there, in such a paper for the knowing reader that we did right. But it also need to be dumbed down to such an extent that for the unknowing reader, it’s understandable and they see the method and understand the clinical meaningfulness of the message. And that is still a bit finding the balance. And I think that is one of the main challenges to do.
Karen Litzy: 30:51 I will say that as the clinician, I very much appreciate your trying to kind of find that sweet spot between the dryness of what may be some people would think qualitative research write up would be to this applicable like you said, more juiced up version that a clinician can take and digest very easily. I think there is a space for that for sure. And I look forward to I guess more progress on that end. So it sounds like you’re getting there but that there is maybe more work to be done, but I am sure there’s always more work to be done, but you know, I think if you can find a way to blend those and make it digestible and allow clinicians to take this information very readily to their patient populations, then in the end, like you said, you got into research to help people. Clinicians are there to help people. So in the end it’s hopefully this blending of research and clinical care that’s there for one reason and to benefit the person in front of us.
Evert Verhagen: 32:14 I believe so, yeah. I believe we can achieve that. I don’t think we are there yet still finding a direction. But in all honesty, if you look at most journals 10, 15 years ago, even quantitative research, it was sort of dry, straightforward academic language as well. And we have made big grounds there and I think we can draw on those experiences and that expertise that has been created there. And our field of sports medicine has been in the forefront, I would say. There are some journals who really, really do that really well. And it has helped us to get this topic on the attention. One other sign that is gaining the attention I feel it deserves is for the last two additions we tried to get it on the program of the IOC prevention conference and this year for the first time we got a dedicated symposium on qualitative research in sports injury prevention on the program. So that already shows that in the wealth of proposals they can choose from ours stood out and the topic is found interesting at such a platform. So it’s now up for us to grab this opportunity and make it count.
Karen Litzy: 33:41 Yes, it’s up to you to deliver on in that focus symposium. And just so people listening we will have a link to this, but that’s the IOC, the International Olympic Committees Injury Prevention Conference, which is march of 2020 in Monaco. I don’t have the exact dates, but I know it’s march. I think it’s like the 14th and around there. Maybe. I’m not a hundred percent sure. I think it’s around there. But we’ll have a link to it in the show notes at podcast.Healthywealthysmart.com if people want to check that out as well. So now if you could leave the listeners with let’s say a highlight of the talk or a highlight in your opinion of the importance of qualitative research, what would that be?
Evert Verhagen: 34:33 My highlight would be that qualitative research gives deeper understanding and deeper meaning to the quantitative evidence we have to use in daily practice.
Karen Litzy: 34:47 Perfect. And one more question. I probably should have told you this ahead of time, but I forgot. So I’m going to surprise you with it, but it’s the question I ask everyone, and that is knowing where you are now in your life and in your career, what advice would you give to yourself, let’s say straight out of your graduate program, let’s do that. So maybe even before PhDs happened. So what advice would you give to yourself?
Evert Verhagen: 35:22 I would give the advice to just follow your heart and follow wherever your thoughts lead you, don’t plan ahead.
Karen Litzy: 35:36 That is great advice and so difficult to do. I’m a planner. That is so hard to do, but I agree it’s great advice.
Evert Verhagen: 35:46 I plan next week but I don’t plan two years ahead. So it hasn’t disappointed me.
Karen Litzy: 35:53 It’s worked well. That’s excellent. Well thank you so much for coming on. Where can people find you if they have extra questions?
Evert Verhagen: 36:05 I’m sure you will share my email address.
Karen Litzy: 36:08 I can if you want, or social media.
Evert Verhagen: 36:15 Twitter account, just drop me a line there or private message.
Karen Litzy: 36:19 Perfect.
Evert Verhagen: 36:20 I have a website we should probably post as well. And most of the work we do also in qualitative research will be posted there once it’s published.
Karen Litzy: 36:32 Perfect. Perfect. So we will have all of those links for all the listeners. So thank you so much for coming on and sharing all this great information with us. I really appreciate it. And everyone, thanks so much for tuning in. Have a great couple of days and stay healthy, wealthy, and smart.
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