DOI: 10.1111/medu.15270 ISSN: 0308-0110

A roadmap to realist interviews in health professions education research: Recommendations based on a critical analysis

Charlotte E. Rees, Corinne Davis, Van N. B. Nguyen, Dominic Proctor, Karen L. Mattick
  • Education
  • General Medicine



Realist evaluation is increasingly employed in health professions education research (HPER) because it can unpack the extent to which complex educational interventions work (or not), for whom under what circumstances and how. While realist evaluation is not wedded to particular methods, realist interviews are commonly the primary, if not only, data collection method in realist evaluations. While qualitative interviewing from an interpretivist standpoint has been well‐articulated in the HPER literature, realist interviewing differs substantially. The former elicits participants' views and experiences of a topic of inquiry, whereas realist interviewing focuses on building, testing and/or refining programme theory. Therefore, this article aims to help readers better understand, conduct, report and critique realist interviews as part of realist evaluations.


In this paper, we describe what realist approaches are, what realist interviewing is and why realist interviewing matters. We outline five stages to realist interviewing (developing initial programme theory, realist sampling/samples, the interview itself, realist analysis and reporting realist interviews), drawing on two illustrative cases from our own realist evaluations employing interviewing to bring theory to life. We provide a critical analysis of 12 realist evaluations employing interviewing in the HPER literature. Alongside reporting standards, and our own realist interviewing experiences, this critical analysis of published articles serves to foreground our recommendations for realist interviewing.


We encourage HPE researchers to consider realist interviews as part of realist evaluations of complex interventions. Our critical analysis reveals that realist interviews can provide unique insights into HPE, but authors now need to report their sampling approach, type of interviewing and interview questions more explicitly. Studies should also more explicitly draw on existing realist interviewing literature and follow reporting guidelines for realist evaluations. We hope this paper provides a useful roadmap to conducting, reporting and critically appraising realist interviews in HPER.

More from our Archive