Background: Life course research methodologies are used extensively in historical and social science research. In 1998 the life course paradigm was introduced to provide a way of tracing the interplay of person and setting. The method has had a very limited use in nursing research, but in this study it was utilized as a way of capturing dynamic change by placing the individual within a context of four domains; location in time and place, linked lives, human agency and timing of lives.
Objective: To describe the paradigm, review its use in healthcare research and provide a specific example of its use in healthcare. Design: This paper discusses a novel method of creating life course charts for a qualitative study exploring the differing experiences of women referred from primary care to specialist services due to a family history of breast cancer. Setting: A nurse-led breast cancer family history clinic in the UK. Participants: Twenty-two women.
Methods: Life charts were used in conjunction with a grounded theory approach to analyse data collected from semi-structured interviews. Findings: Twenty-two life charts were created and the ability to layer the charts of multiple women to visualise similarities and differences aided the analysis. The life charts were a useful tool in the development of theoretical understandings and the psychosocial process of realisation of risk emerged as central to the initiation of referral. This was often apparent when approaching the age of an affected relative (anticipated onset) or when current circumstances emulate past experience (generational transference).
Conclusions: This approach to charting complex psychological, social and contextual factors throughout the life course was methodologically beneficial and could have a wider utility in nursing and healthcare research. As a research tool it enhanced a holistic approach to patient care issues and was helpful as an aid to understanding health behaviours linked to familial risk.