Promoting Research Literacy for Improved Patient Outcomes

Research designs and making causal inferences from health care studies

This article summarizes the major types of research designs used in healthcare research, including experimental, quasi-experimental, and observational studies. Observational studies are divided into survey studies (descriptive and correlational studies), case-studies and analytic studies, the last of which are commonly used in epidemiology: case-control, retrospective cohort, and prospective cohort studies. Similarities and differences among the research designs are described and the relative strength of evidence they provide is discussed. Emphasis is placed on five criteria for drawing causal inferences that are derived from the writings of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, especially his methods or canons. The application of the criteria to experimentation is explained. Particular attention is given to the degree to which different designs meet the five criteria for making causal inferences. Examples of specific studies that have used various designs in chaplaincy research are provided.