Background: There is only limited empirical evidence about the effectiveness of opinion leaders as health care change agents.
Aim: To test the feasibility of identifying, and the characteristics of, opinion leaders using a sociometric instrument and a self-designating instrument in different professional groups within the UK National Health Service.
Design: Postal questionnaire survey.
Setting and participants: All general practitioners, practice nurses and practice managers in two regions of Scotland. All physicians and surgeons (junior hospital doctors and consultants) and medical and surgical nursing staff in two district general hospitals and one teaching hospital in Scotland, as well as all Scottish obstetric and gynaecology, and oncology consultants.
Results: Using the sociometric instrument, the extent of social networks and potential coverage of the study population in primary and secondary care was highly idiosyncratic. In contrast, relatively complex networks with good coverage rates were observed in both national specialty groups. Identified opinion leaders were more likely to have the expected characteristics of opinion leaders identified from diffusion and social influence theories. Moreover, opinion leaders appeared to be condition-specific. The self-designating instrument identified more opinion leaders, but it was not possible to estimate the extent and structure of social networks or likely coverage by opinion leaders. There was poor agreement in the responses to the sociometric and self-designating instruments.
Conclusion: The feasibility of identifying opinion leaders using an off-the-shelf sociometric instrument is variable across different professional groups and settings within the NHS. Whilst it is possible to identify opinion leaders using a self-designating instrument, the effectiveness of such opinion leaders has not been rigorously tested in health care settings. Opinion leaders appear to be monomorphic (different leaders for different issues). Recruitment of opinion leaders is unlikely to be an effective general strategy across all settings and professional groups; the more specialised the group, the more opinion leaders may be a useful strategy.