Background: Cancer program delivery, like the rest of health care in Canada, faces two ongoing challenges: to coordinate a pan-Canadian approach across complex provincial jurisdictions, and to facilitate the rapid translation of knowledge into clinical practice. Communities of practice, or CoPs, which have been described by Etienne Wenger as a collaborative learning platform, represent a promising solution to these challenges because they rely on bottom-up rather than top-down social structures for integrating knowledge and practice across regions and agencies. The communities of practice model has been realized in the corporate (e.g., Royal Dutch Shell, Xerox, IBM, etc) and development (e.g., World Bank) sectors, but its application to health care is relatively new. The Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC) is exploring the potential of Wenger's concept in the Canadian health care context. This paper provides an in-depth analysis of Wenger's concept with a focus on its applicability to the health care sector.
Discussion: Empirical studies and social science theory are used to examine the utility of Wenger's concept. Its value lies in emphasizing learning from peers and through practice in settings where innovation is valued. Yet the communities of practice concept lacks conceptual clarity because Wenger defines it so broadly and sidelines issues of decision making within CoPs. We consider the implications of his broad definition to establishing an informed nomenclature around this specific type of collaborative group. The CoP Project under CPAC and communities of practice in Canadian health care are discussed.
Summary: The use of communities of practice in Canadian health care has been shown in some instances to facilitate quality improvements, encourage buy in among participants, and generate high levels of satisfaction with clinical leadership and knowledge translation among participating physicians. Despite these individual success stories, more information is required on how group decisions are made and applied to the practice world in order to leverage the potential of Wenger's concept more fully, and advance the science of knowledge translation within an accountability framework.