The use of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to address causality in complex systems: a systematic review of research on public health interventions

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Abstract

Background: Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) is a method for identifying the configurations of conditions that lead to specific outcomes. Given its potential for providing evidence of causality in complex systems, QCA is increasingly used in evaluative research to examine the uptake or impacts of public health interventions. We map this emerging field, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of QCA approaches identified in published studies, and identify implications for future research and reporting. Methods: PubMed, Scopus and Web of Science were systematically searched for peer-reviewed studies published in English up to December 2019 that had used QCA methods to identify the conditions associated with the uptake and/or effectiveness of interventions for public health. Data relating to the interventions studied (settings/level of intervention/populations), methods (type of QCA, case level, source of data, other methods used) and reported strengths and weaknesses of QCA were extracted and synthesised narratively. Results: The search identified 1384 papers, of which 27 (describing 26 studies) met the inclusion criteria. Interventions evaluated ranged across: nutrition/obesity (n = 8); physical activity (n = 4); health inequalities (n = 3); mental health (n = 2); community engagement (n = 3); chronic condition management (n = 3); vaccine adoption or implementation (n = 2); programme implementation (n = 3); breastfeeding (n = 2), and general population health (n = 1). The majority of studies (n = 24) were of interventions solely or predominantly in high income countries. Key strengths reported were that QCA provides a method for addressing causal complexity; and that it provides a systematic approach for understanding the mechanisms at work in implementation across contexts. Weaknesses reported related to data availability limitations, especially on ineffective interventions. The majority of papers demonstrated good knowledge of cases, and justification of case selection, but other criteria of methodological quality were less comprehensively met. Conclusion: QCA is a promising approach for addressing the role of context in complex interventions, and for identifying causal configurations of conditions that predict implementation and/or outcomes when there is sufficiently detailed understanding of a series of comparable cases. As the use of QCA in evaluative health research increases, there may be a need to develop advice for public health researchers and journals on minimum criteria for quality and reporting.

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Hanckel, B., Petticrew, M., Thomas, J., & Green, J. (2021). The use of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to address causality in complex systems: a systematic review of research on public health interventions. BMC Public Health, 21(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10926-2

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