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A case report: ethics of a proposed qualitative study of hospital closure in an Australian rural community

, : A case report: ethics of a proposed qualitative study of hospital closure in an Australian rural community. Family Practice 21(1): 87-91

The GP and qualitative researcher use similar patient-centred approaches, but their roles are different. Guidelines for conducting GP research in small communities are limited. I planned a qualitative study about hospital closure in a small rural Australian town where I worked. Few studies have researched community reaction to hospital closure and this process of change. I used historical analysis to improve external reliability, and purposeful sampling to develop and pre-test a qualitative semi-structured research instrument. Newspaper articles, minutes and tape recordings of public meetings, annual reports from 1991 to 1997, quality assurance data and interviews with two health professionals were analysed in this process. These sources were coded using content and thematic analysis. Ethical issues arose during early stages of planning. Ethical guidelines and bioethics principles were discussed with colleagues and a member of an ethics committee. I validated my findings with three other community members involved in the hospital closure. Themes of a transition, from resistance to change and divisions between key stake holders, to a need to appreciate the benefits of change emerged in coding material from 1991 to 1997. The principle of non-maleficence outweighed the principle of beneficence in this study. Existing health services could be harmed by examining the process of change after spending time and resources to reconcile community differences. Individuals could be harmed as confidentiality in a small community was difficult to maintain, and discussions about sensitive issues could produce adverse public criticism. The autonomy of participants to give informed consent was complicated by the author providing clinical services in the community, raising concerns about patients feeling an obligation to participate. A justified case for discontinuing this study was made by the researcher on ethical grounds. Use of bioethical principles and community representatives to validate findings was a useful technique to guide decisions in a small rural community. This discussion has application in planning other small community studies.


PMID: 14760052

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