BACKGROUND: National Clinical Audits (NCAs) are a well-established quality improvement strategy used in healthcare settings. Significant resources, including clinicians' time, are invested in participating in NCAs, yet there is variation in the extent to which the resulting feedback stimulates quality improvement. The aim of this study was to explore the reasons behind this variation.
METHODS: We used realist evaluation to interrogate how context shapes the mechanisms through which NCAs work (or not) to stimulate quality improvement. Fifty-four interviews were conducted with doctors, nurses, audit clerks and other staff working with NCAs across five healthcare providers in England. In line with realist principles we scrutinised the data to identify how and why providers responded to NCA feedback (mechanisms), the circumstances that supported or constrained provider responses (context), and what happened as a result of the interactions between mechanisms and context (outcomes). We summarised our findings as Context+Mechanism = Outcome configurations.
RESULTS: We identified five mechanisms that explained provider interactions with NCA feedback: reputation, professionalism, competition, incentives, and professional development. Professionalism and incentives underpinned most frequent interaction with feedback, providing opportunities to stimulate quality improvement. Feedback was used routinely in these ways where it was generated from data stored in local databases before upload to NCA suppliers. Local databases enabled staff to access data easily, customise feedback and, importantly, the data were trusted as accurate, due to the skills and experience of staff supporting audit participation. Feedback produced by NCA suppliers, which included national comparator data, was used in a more limited capacity across providers. Challenges accessing supplier data in a timely way and concerns about the quality of data submitted across providers were reported to constrain use of this mode of feedback.
CONCLUSION: The findings suggest that there are a number of mechanisms that underpin healthcare providers' interactions with NCA feedback. However, there is variation in the mode, frequency and impact of these interactions. Feedback was used most routinely, providing opportunities to stimulate quality improvement, within clinical services resourced to collect accurate data and to maintain local databases from which feedback could be customised for the needs of the service.