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“A student of management and organisation theory could only be stunned by how little the efforts to improve quality [in health care] have learnt from current thinking in management and from the experience of other industries.” Christian Koeck BMJ 1998;317:1267–8.
Health policy in much of the developed world is concerned with assessing and improving the quality of health care. The USA, in particular, has identified specific concerns over quality issues12 and a recent report from the Institute of Medicine pointed to the considerable toll of medical errors.3 In the UK a series of scandals has propelled quality issues to centre stage45 and made quality improvement a key policy area.6
But how are quality improvements to be wrought in such a complex system as health care? A recent issue of Quality in Health Care was devoted to considerations of organisational change in health care, calling it “the key to quality improvement”.7 In discussing how such change can be managed, the authors of one of the articles asserted that cultural change needs to be wrought alongside structural reorganisation and systems reform to bring about “a culture in which excellence can flourish”.8 A review of policy changes in the UK over the past two decades shows that these appeals for cultural change are not new but have appeared in various guises (box 1). However, talk of “culture” and “culture change” beg some difficult questions about the nature of the underlying substrate to which change programmes are applied. What is “organisational culture” anyway? It is to this issue that this paper is addressed.
Many previous policy reforms in the National Health Service (NHS) have invoked the notion of cultural change. In the early 1980s the reforms inspired by Sir Roy Griffiths led …