BACKGROUND: A range of policy initiatives have addressed inequalities in healthcare and health outcomes. Local pay-for-performance schemes for primary care have been advocated as means of enhancing clinical ownership of the quality agenda and better targeting local need compared with national schemes such as the UK Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF). We investigated whether professionals' experience of a local scheme in one English National Health Service (NHS) former primary care trust (PCT) differed from that of the national QOF in relation to the goal of reducing inequalities.
METHODS: We conducted retrospective semi-structured interviews with primary care professionals implementing the scheme and those involved in its development. We purposively sampled practices with varying levels of population socio-economic deprivation and achievement. Interviews explored perceptions of the scheme and indicators, likely mechanisms of influence on practice, perceived benefits and harms, and how future schemes could be improved. We used a framework approach to analysis.
RESULTS: Thirty-eight professionals from 16 general practices and six professionals involved in developing local indicators participated. Our findings cover four themes: ownership, credibility of the indicators, influences on behaviour, and exacerbated tensions. We found little evidence that the scheme engendered any distinctive sense of ownership or experiences different from the national scheme. Although the indicators and their evidence base were seldom actively questioned, doubts were expressed about their focus on health promotion given that eventual benefits relied upon patient action and availability of local resources. Whilst practices serving more affluent populations reported status and patient benefit as motivators for participating in the scheme, those serving more deprived populations highlighted financial reward. The scheme exacerbated tensions between patient and professional consultation agendas, general practitioners benefitting directly from incentives and nurses who did much of the work, and practices serving more and less affluent populations which faced different challenges in achieving targets.
CONCLUSIONS: The contentious nature of pay-for-performance was not necessarily reduced by local adaptation. Those developing future schemes should consider differential rewards and supportive resources for practices serving more deprived populations, and employing a wider range of levers to promote professional understanding and ownership of indicators.