Objectives: To investigate how general medical practices in the UK react to bureaucratic initiatives, such as National Health Service (NHS) National Service Frameworks (NSFs), and to explore the value of the metaphor of 'barriers to change' for understanding this.
Methods: Interviews, non-participant observation and documentary analysis within case studies of four practices in northern England.
Results: The practices had not actively implemented NSFs. At interview, various 'barriers' that had prevented implementation were listed, including the complexity of the documents and lack of time. Observation suggested that these barriers were constructions used by the participants to make sense of the situation in which they found themselves.
Conclusion: The metaphor of 'removing barriers to change' was of limited use in a context where non-implementation of policy was an emergent property of underlying organizational realities, likely to be modifiable only if these realities were addressed.