Objectives: To understand the effects of a large scale 'payment for performance' scheme (the Quality and Outcomes Framework [QOF]) on professional roles and the delivery of primary care in the English National Health Service.
Methods: Qualitative semi-structured interview study. Twenty-four clinicians were interviewed during 2006: one general practitioner and one practice nurse in 12 general practices in eastern England with a broad range of sociodemographic and organizational characteristics.
Results: Participants reported substantial improvements in teamwork and in the organization, consistency and recording of care for conditions incentivized in the scheme, but not for non-incentivized conditions. The need to carry out and record specific clinical activities was felt to have changed the emphasis from 'patient led' consultations and listening to patients' concerns. Loss of continuity of care and of patient choice were described. Nurses experienced increased workload but enjoyed more autonomy and job satisfaction. Doctors acknowledged improved disease management and teamwork but expressed unease about 'box-ticking' and increased demands of team supervision, despite better terms and conditions. Doctors were less motivated to achieve performance indicators where they disputed the evidence on which they were based. Participants expressed little engagement with results of patient surveys or patient involvement initiatives. Some participants described data manipulation to maximize practice income. Many felt overwhelmed by the flow of policy initiatives.
Conclusions: Payment for performance is driving major changes in the roles and organization of English primary health care teams. Non-incentivized activities and patients' concerns may receive less clinical attention. Practitioners would benefit from improved dissemination of the evidence justifying the inclusion of new performance indicators in the QOF.