A qualitative study of organisational response to national quality standards for 7-day services in English hospitals

Elizabeth Sutton, Julian Bion, Russell Mannion, Janet Willars, Elizabeth Shaw, Carolyn Tarrant

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Background: National standards are commonly used as an improvement strategy in healthcare, but organisations may respond in diverse and sometimes negative ways to external quality demands. This paper describes how a sample of NHS hospital trusts in England responded to the introduction of national standards for 7-day services (7DS), from an organisational behaviour perspective.

Methods: We conducted 43 semi-structured interviews with executive/director level and clinical staff, in eight NHS trusts that varied in size, location, and levels of specialist staffing at weekends. We explored approaches to implementing standards locally, and the impact of organisational culture and local context on organisational response.

Results: Senior staff in the majority of trusts described a focus on hitting targets and achieving compliance with the standards. Compliance-based responses were associated with a hierarchical organisational culture and focus on external performance. In a minority of trusts senior staff described mobilising commitment-based strategies. In these trusts senior staff reframed the external standards in terms of organisational values, and used co-operative strategies for achieving change. Trusts that took a commitment-based approach tended to be described as having a developmental organisational culture and a history of higher performance across the board. Audit data on 7DS showed improvement against standards for most trusts, but commitment-focused trusts were less likely to demonstrate improvements on the 7DS audit. The ability of trusts to respond to external standards was limited when they were under pressure due to a history of overall poor performance or resource limitations.

Conclusions: National standards and audit for service-level improvement generate different types of response in different local settings. Approaches to driving improvement nationally need to be accompanied by resources and tailored support for improvement, taking into account local context and organisational culture.
Original languageEnglish
Article number205
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Early online date6 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Organisational culture
  • Healthcare quality improvement
  • Qualitative research


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