Effective board governance of safe care: a (theoretically underpinned) cross-sectioned examination of the breadth and depth of relationships through national quantitative surveys and in-depth qualitative case studies

Russell Mannion, Timothy Freeman, Ross Millar, Huw Davies

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Recent high-profile reports into serious failings in the quality of hospital care in the NHS raise concerns over the ability of trust boards to discharge their duties effectively.


Our study aimed to generate theoretically grounded empirical evidence on the associations between board governance, patient safety processes and patient-centred outcomes. The specific aims were as follows: (1) to identify the types of governance activities undertaken by hospital trust boards in the English NHS with regard to ensuring safe care in their organisation; (2) in foundation trusts, to explore the role of boards and boards of governors with regards to the oversight of patient safety in their organisation; (3) to assess the association between particular hospital trust board oversight activities and patient safety processes and clinical outcomes; (4) to identify the facilitators and barriers to developing effective hospital trust board governance of safe care; and (5) to assess the impact of external commissioning arrangements and incentives on hospital trust board oversight of patient safety.


The study comprised three distinct but interlocking strands: (1) a narrative systematic review in order to describe, interpret and synthesise key findings and debates concerning board oversight of patient safety; (2) in-depth mixed-methods case studies in four organisations to assess the impact of hospital board governance and external incentives on patient safety processes and outcomes; and (3) two national surveys exploring board management in NHS acute and specialist hospital trusts in England, and relating board characteristics to whole-organisation outcomes.


A very high proportion of trust boards reported the kinds of desirable characteristics and board-related processes that research says may be associated with higher performance. Our analysis of the symbolic aspects of board activities highlights the role and differences in local processes of organising the governance of patient safety. Most boards do allocate a considerable amount of time to discussing patient safety and quality-related issues and were using a wide range of hard performance metrics and soft intelligence to monitor its organisation with regard to patient safety. Although the board of governors is generally perceived to be well-meaning, they were also considered to be being largely ineffective in helping to promote and deliver safer care for their organisations. We did not find any statistically significant relationship between board attributes (self-reported) and processes and any patient safety outcome measures. However, we did find a significant relationship between two dimensions of the Board Self-Assessment Questionnaire and two specific-and-related national staff survey organisational ‘process’ measures: (1) staff feeling safe to raise concerns about errors, near-misses and incidents and (2) staff feeling confident that their organisation would address their concerns, if raised. We also found that contracting and external financial incentives appeared to play only a relatively minor role in incentivising quality and safety improvement.


Our research is the first large-scale mixed-methods study of hospital board activity and behaviour related to the oversight of patient safety in the English NHS and the key findings should be used to influence the design of future governance arrangements as well as the training and support of board. Our finding that board governance/competencies appear to be linked to staff feeling safe to raise concerns about patient safety issues, and also their confidence that their organisation would address their concern, is worthy of further and more sustained exploration, particularly in the context of the current focus on improving whistleblowing policies in the NHS.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research programme.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-164
Number of pages164
JournalHealth Services and Delivery Research
Volume 4
Issue number4
Early online date3 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016


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