Background: Experimentation with continuous quality improvement (CQI) processes is well underway in Indigenous Australian primary health care. To date, little research into how health organizations take up, support, and embed these complex innovations is available on which services can draw to inform implementation. In this paper, we examine the practices and processes in the policy and organisational contexts, and aim to explore the ways in which they interact to support and/or hinder services' participation in a large scale Indigenous primary health care CQI program.
Methods: We took a theory-driven approach, drawing on literature on the theory and effectiveness of CQI systems and the Greenhalgh diffusion of innovation framework. Data included routinely collected regional and service profile data; uptake of tools and progress through the first CQI cycle, and data collected quarterly from hub coordinators on their perceptions of barriers and enablers. A total of 48 interviews were also conducted with key people involved in the development, dissemination, and implementation of the Audit and Best Practice for Chronic Disease (ABCD) project. We compiled the various data, conducted thematic analyses, and developed an in-depth narrative account of the processes of uptake and diffusion into services.
Results: Uptake of CQI was a complex and messy process that happened in fits and starts, was often characterised by conflicts and tensions, and was iterative, reactive, and transformational. Despite initial enthusiasm, the mixed successes during the first cycle were associated with the interaction of features of the environment, the service, the quality improvement process, and the stakeholders, which operated to produce a set of circumstances that either inhibited or enabled the process of change. Organisations had different levels of capacity to mobilize resources that could shift the balance toward supporting implementation. Different forms of leadership and organisational linkages were critical to success. The Greenhalgh framework provided a useful starting point for investigation, but we believe it is more a descriptive than explanatory model. As such, it has limitations in the extent to which it could assist us in understanding the interactions of the practices and processes that we observed at different levels of the system.
Summary: Taking up CQI involved engaging multiple stakeholders in new relationships that could support services to construct shared meaning and purpose, operationalise key concepts and tools, and develop and embed new practices into services systems and routines. Promoting quality improvement requires a system approach and organization-wide commitment. At the organization level, a formal high-level mandate, leadership at all levels, and resources to support implementation are needed. At the broader system level, governance arrangements that can fulfil a number of policy objectives related to articulating the linkages between CQI and other aspects of the regulatory, financing, and performance frameworks within the health system would help define a role and vision for quality improvement.