The Value of Secondary Data in Healthcare


The use of secondary data is acceptable in many spheres of research. Secondary data are the sources of information “that has already been collected by someone else” and can be accessed by a researcher (Clark, 2013, p. 57). Johnson (2014) claims that secondary data can be a good alternative for researchers who “have limited time and resources” (619). There are several types of secondary data which include different government surveys or censuses, and statistics in many spheres. As a rule, secondary data are available from many countries and can be used in many fields. For example, research by Smith et al. (2010) reveals the possibilities that administrative databases and existing surveys have for projects in occupational health and safety. Secondary data are often determining for the research question and can contribute positively to the relevance of the study results.

Secondary Data and Research Question

Every research follows a certain algorithm. One of its stages includes the development of a research question. While primary data are collected to answer the research question, secondary data can be applied to produce new research questions (Doolan & Froelicher, 2009). There exist two major approaches to the connection of secondary data to the research question. Some researchers prefer devising research questions and choosing secondary data afterward. I agree with Lipowski (2008) that a good research question should not be just interesting but also grounded on the analysis of evidence. Thus, secondary data can become such evidence. I consider finding secondary data first a necessary step in research because they can help to adjust the research topic to the existing information. Society of General Internal Medicine (2009) agrees that datasets can be useful in formulating a research question. This approach presupposes the initial selection of a comparatively broad area of investigation. After that, a study is conducted which analyses the existing information and evaluates the obtained data. Finally, it allows formulating a research question.

Strengths and Limitations of Approaches to Secondary Data

There are many benefits in the application of secondary data. For example, secondary databases can be helpful when there is a necessity to create a questionnaire for further research (Whitener, Van Horne, & Gauthier, 2005). Although secondary data can be useful, the approach to their application is often challenging for researchers. The order of secondary data selection and research question development is a choice that scholars face. Both approaches have strengths and limitations. Thus, when a researcher first finds datasets and then formulates a research question, there are more opportunities to fix the question depending on the information found in datasets. Secondly, it saves the time because scholars work with the existing information. The limitations of this approach include low quality of data which can be incomplete or insufficient (Dunn, Arslanian-Engoren, DeKoekkoek, Jadack, & Scott, 2015). Another limitation is that the research question developed on the basis of secondary data can be far from the intended topic.

As for the application of secondary data within further research projects, I plan to follow the approach mentioned above. Thus, I will search the data first and then develop the research question.


Generally speaking, secondary data provide a rich source for the research in many fields. However, they should be used carefully and thoughtfully to provide the relevance and validity of the research findings. A researcher should consider strengths and limitations of various approaches to secondary data and select a suitable one for this or that research.


Clark, G. (2013). Secondary data. In R. Flowerdew & D. Martin (Eds.), Methods in human geography: A guide for students doing a research project (pp. 57-74). Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.

Doolan, D. M., & Froelicher, E. S. (2009). Using an existing data set to answer new research questions: A methodological review. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, 23(3), 203–215.

Dunn, S.L., Arslanian-Engoren, S., DeKoekkoek, T., Jadack, R., & Scott, L.S. (2015). Secondary data analysis as an efficient and effective approach to nursing research. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 1-13. Web.

Johnson, M.P. (2014). Secondary data analysis: A method of which the time has come. Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries, 3(3), 619-626.

Lipowski, E. E. (2008). Developing great research questions. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 65(17), 1667–1670.

Smith, P. M., Stock, S. R., McLeod, C. B., Koehoorn, M., Marchand, A., & Mustard, C. A. (2010). Research opportunities using administrative databases and existing surveys for new knowledge in occupational health and safety in Canada, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 101, S46–S52.

Society of General Internal Medicine. (2009). User’s guide: Which comes first – the dataset or the research question? Web.

Whitener, B. L., Van Horne, V. V., & Gauthier, A. K. (2005). Health services research tools for public health professionals. American Journal of Public Health, 95(2), 204–207.

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