Background: This study was commissioned by the UK Health Development Agency to provide a snapshot of how, at the outset of the 2002 NHS reorganisation, Primary Care Trust (PCT) staff and Professional Executive Committee (PEC) members perceived their public health roles and functions, the opportunities and barriers to delivering those roles and functions and the development needs in order to fulfill them.
Methods: Taped group interviews were conducted with PECs of eight PCTs (covering a range of settings, size and stage of organisational development), followed up by structured telephone interviews with 35 frontline staff from four of the PCTs. Analysis was through content analysis and counting of themes including a quantitative assessment of the occurrence of themes and comparison between different categories of participants.
Results: PEC members and frontline staff (particularly community based staff) were keen to address a broad public health agenda within the new PCTs, however a number of barriers to the ability of the PCT to fulfill its Public Health role were identified. The most important were lack of resources (staff and staff time) in the context of a host of competing agendas and excessive clinical workloads. There was a clear difference among frontline staff between those who were practice or community based-many practice-based frontline staff did not acknowledge any major public health dimensions to their daily work. A number of detailed suggestions for improvement were made.
Conclusion: At the start of the 2002 NHS reorganisation, PCTs need to improve their organisational capacity to address the public health if they are to deliver health improvement as envisaged. We make recommendations which should allow PCTs to perform their public health functions more effectively.