Objectives Implementation of quality improvement programmes may suffer if the stakeholders involved do not share a common understanding of the theory of change or do not accept it as legitimate. We aimed to identify how strategic stakeholders understood and responded to the first phase of the Health Foundation's Safer Patients Initiative, a programme aimed at making hospitals safer for patients in the UK.
Methods Semistructured telephone interviews were conducted with 60 strategic-level hospital stakeholders and with five stakeholders involved in commissioning, designing and introducing the initiative. Analysis was based on the constant comparative method.
Results The aims of the initiative were seen as legitimate and sound by most hospital stakeholders, and the theory of change was generally understood and accepted, but seven hospital stakeholders were unable to describe it. Although participants had specific doubts, particularly relating to feasibility of implementation and scientific legitimacy of some elements of the initiative, overall there was a broadly shared vision and commitment to the principles and practices associated with the theory of change, and considerable enthusiasm and optimism. Contestations about the legitimacy and relevance of the initiative among front-line staff, local resistance to changes that went against established norms, and resource and structural issues were, however, seen as potentially threatening to implementation.
Conclusions It is possible to get strategic-level individuals, even when widely dispersed, to understand and agree upon a theory of change that can be used in their organisations. These individuals are also able to recognise the contexts of negotiation in which programmes of change are enacted.
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Funding The Health Foundation, 90 Long Acre, London WC2E 9RA.
Competing interests None.
Ethics approval NHS Research Ethics Committee approval was granted for this project by Trent MREC.
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