Money's (not) on my mind: a qualitative study of how staff and managers understand health care's triple Aim

BMC Health Serv Res. 2017 Jan 31;17(1):98. doi: 10.1186/s12913-017-2052-3.


Background: The "Triple Aim" - provision of a better care experience and improved population health at a lower cost - may be theoretically sound, but paradoxical in practice as it forces together the logics of management and medicine. The aim of this study was to explore how staff and managers understand the change imperative inherent to the Triple Aim and the mental models underlying their understanding.

Methods: This qualitative study builds on thirty semi-structured interviews conducted with managers, nurses, midwives, medical secretaries, and physicians at a department of Gynecology and Obstetrics in Denmark who successfully cut costs through staff and bed reductions and, from what we can ascertain, maintained care quality. Mental models were articulated from a content analysis of the interviews.

Results: Staff and managers identified with the different dimensions of the Triple Aim along classic professional divides, i.e. nurses and midwives focused on patient experience, physicians on health outcomes, and manager on all three. Underlying these, we found four mental models. The understanding of change was guided by a Professional ethos (inner drive to improve care) and a Socio-political discourse (external requirement to become more efficient) mental model. The understanding of economics was guided by a You-get-what-you-pay-for and by a More-bang-for-the-buck mental model. A complex interplay could be discerned between all four, which led staff to see the Triple Aim as a dilemma between quality and economics and a threat to clinical care and quality, whereas managers saw it as a paradox that invited improvement efforts. Despite these differences, managers chose a change strategy in line with staff mental models.

Conclusions: The practical challenges inherent to the Triple Aim may be symptomatic of the interactions between the different mental models that guide staff and managers' understanding and choice of change strategies. Pursuit of quality improvement in the face of financial constraints (the essence of the Triple Aim) may be facilitated through conscious exploration of these empirically identified mental models. Managers might do well to translate the socio-political discourse into a change process that resonates with the mental models held by staff.

Keywords: Change management; Cost and quality; Downsizing; Mental models; Professions; Quality improvement; Triple aim.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Cost Savings*
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • Health Facility Administrators / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Midwifery
  • Organizational Objectives*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Quality Improvement*
  • Quality of Health Care* / economics