Application of the critical incident technique in refining a realist initial programme theory.
KeywordsCritical incident interview
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JournalBMC medical research methodology
AbstractBackground: As realist methodology is still evolving, there is a paucity of guidance on how to conduct theory driven interviews. Realist researchers can therefore struggle to collect interview data that can make a meaningful contribution to refining their initial programme theory. Collecting data to inform realist Inital Programme Theories (IPTs) in healthcare contexts is further compounded due to the healthcare workers' busy work schedules. In this case study of team interventions in acute hospital contexts, we explore the benefits of using the Critical Incident Technique (CIT) in order to build and refine an initial programme theory. We contend that use of the CIT helps to draw on more specific experiences of "Key Informants" and therefore elicits richer and more relevant data for realist enquiry. Methods: The five steps of the CIT were mapped against realist methods guidance and adapted into an interview framework. Specifications to identify an incident as "critical" were agreed. Probes were embedded in the interview framework to confirm, refine and/or refute previous theories. Seventeen participants were interviewed and recordings were transcribed and imported for analysis into NVivo software. Using RAMESES guidelines, Context-Mechanism-Outcomes configurations were extrapolated from a total of 31 incidents. Results: We found that the CIT facilitated construction of an interview format that allowed participants to reflect on specific experiences of interest. We demonstrate how the CIT strengthened initial programme theory development as it facilitated the reporting of the specifics of team interventions and the contexts and mechanisms characteristic of those experiences. As new data emerged, it was possible to evolve previous theories synthesised from the literature as well as to explore new theories. Conclusions: Utilising a CIT framework paid dividends in terms of the relevance and usefulness of the data for refining the initial programme theory. Adapting the CIT questioning technique helped to focus the participants on the specifics relating to an incident allowing the interviewers to concentrate on probes to explore theories during the interview process. The CIT interview format therefore achieved its purpose and can be adapted for use within realist methodology.
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