Background: Despite the increasing interest in using non-physician clinicians in many low-income countries, little is known about the roles they play in typical health system settings. Prior research has concentrated on evaluating their technical competencies compared to those of doctors. This work explored perceptions of the roles of Kenyan non-physician clinicians (Clinical Officers (COs).
Methods: Qualitative methods including in-depth interviews (with COs, nurses, doctors, hospital management, and policymakers, among others), participant observation and document analysis were used. A nomothetic-idiographic framework was used to examine tensions between institutions and individuals within them. A comparative approach was used to examine institutional versus individual notions of CO roles, how these roles play out in government and faith-based hospital (FBH) settings as well as differences arising from three specific work settings for COs within hospitals.
Results: The main finding was the discrepancy between policy documents that outline a broad role for COs that covers both technical and managerial roles, while respondents articulated a narrow technical role that focused on patient care and management. Respondents described a variety of images of COs, ranging from 'filter' to 'primary healthcare physician', when asked about CO roles. COs argued for a defined role associated with primary healthcare, feeling constrained by their technical role. FBH settings were found to additionally clarify CO roles when compared with public hospitals. Tensions between formal prescriptions of CO roles and actual practice were reported and coalesced around lack of recognition over COs work, role conflict among specialist COs, and role ambiguity.
Conclusions: Even though COs are important service providers their role is not clearly understood, which has resulted in role conflict. It is suggested that their role be redefined, moving from that of 'substitute clinician' to professional 'primary care clinician', with this being supported by the health system.