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Researching sensitive topics in healthcare
  1. Alexandra Pinto1,
  2. Alison Rodriguez2,
  3. Joanna Smith1,2
  1. 1Health Care, University of Leeds, School of Healthcare, Leeds, UK
  2. 2Children’s Nursing, University of Leeds, School of Healthcare, Leeds, UK
  1. Correspondence to Alexandra Pinto, Healthcare, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK; hcapp{at}

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Research about sensitive topics in healthcare is crucial because it is essential to give voice to the under-represented in research.1 If research is not undertaken on sensitive topics or with marginalised populations, our evidence base will be limited, lack significant knowledge or understanding of the individuals and community groups we support, with the potential for some areas and systems of care/interventions to lack an evidence-based, be ineffective or not inclusive. In this article, we will consider examples of research that could be deemed as sensitive before outlining key considerations when undertaking research within sensitive topic areas.

Sensitive topics in healthcare

The healthcare literature identifies a negative discourse when describing sensitive research topics or the participants of such studies, including words such as ‘difficult’, ‘emotive’ and ‘vulnerable’. The vulnerability narrative further involves the adjectives ‘fragile’, ‘emotional’, ‘controversial’, ‘delicate’, ‘weak’, ‘defenceless’ and ‘helpless’. Consequently, researchers exploring topics deemed as sensitive appear to be faced with a range of barriers and challenges when embarking on these types of studies. Researchers may encounter comments from peers such as: should we really be doing these types of studies; it is inappropriate to contact specific participant groups or you will not be able to recruit participants; the benefit of involvement does not outweigh the risk of involvement and we need to protect these people from harm because the research is too sensitive. The assumption that we need to protect these people from harm reflects a paternalistic approach to healthcare and by association healthcare research, positioning the participants as requiring protection at the expense of inclusivity: this is particularly contentious for the researcher who is passionate about pursuing certain topics or for the participant who wants to share their experiences and perceive others may benefit from their experiences, and may not consider themselves as vulnerable.

Sensitive topics often intersect with …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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