Objective: In developing countries, supervision is a widely recognized strategy for improving health worker performance; and anecdotally, maintaining regular, high-quality supervision is difficult. However, remarkably little research has explored in depth why supervision is so challenging.
Methods: In the context of a trial to improve health worker adherence to Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) guidelines and strengthen supervision in southeastern Benin, we used record reviews, focus group discussions, key informant interviews, and cross-sectional surveys to examine the supervision process.
Findings: Initially, little IMCI supervision occurred. The frequency increased substantially after implementing a series of workshops, but then deteriorated. Quantitative and qualitative data revealed obstacles to supervision at multiple levels of the health system. Based on supervisors' opinions, the main problems were: poor coordination; inadequate management skills and ineffective management teams; a lack of motivation; problems related to decentralization; health workers sometimes resisting IMCI implementation; and less priority given to IMCI supervision because of incentives for non-supervision activities, a lack of leadership, and an expectation of integrated supervision. To this list, based on our observations, we add: the increasing supervision workload, time required for non-supervision activities, project interventions not always being implemented as planned, and the loss of particularly effective supervisors. In terms of correctly completing steps of the supervision process, the quality of supervision was generally good.
Conclusions: Managers should monitor supervision, understand the evolving influences on supervision, and use their resources and authority to both promote supervision and remove impediments to supervision. Support from leaders can be crucial, thus donors and politicians should help make supervision a true priority. As with front-line clinicians, supervisors are health workers who need support. We emphasize the importance of research to identify effective and affordable strategies for improving supervision frequency and quality. (ClinicalTrials.gov number NCT00510679).