OBJECTIVES: To investigate approaches of district health authorities to quality in contracting. DESIGN: Descriptive survey. SETTING: All district health authorities in one health region of England in a National Health Service accounting year. MATERIAL: 129 quality specifications used in contracting for services in six specialties (eight general quality specifications and 121 service specific quality specifications) MAIN MEASURES: Evaluation of the use of quality specifications; their scope and content in relation to established criteria of healthcare quality. RESULTS: Most district health authorities developed quality specifications which would be applicable to their local hospital. When purchasing care outside their boundaries they adopted the quality specifications developed by other health authorities. The service specific quality specifications were more limited in scope than the general quality specifications. The quality of clinical care was referred to in 75% of general and 43% of service specific quality specifications. Both types of specification considered quality issues in superficial and broad terms only. Established features of quality improvement were rarely included. Prerequisites to ensure provider accountability and satisfactory delivery of service specifications were not routinely included in contracts. CONCLUSION: Quality specifications within service contracts are commonly used by health authorities. This study shows that their use of this approach to quality improvement is inconsistent and unlikely to achieve desired quality goals. Continued reliance on the current approach is holding back a more fundamental debate on how to create effective management of quality improvement through the interaction between purchasers and providers of health care.
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