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Clinical audit and quality improvement – time for a rethink?


Dr Paul Bowie, NHS Education for Scotland, 2 Central Quay, 89 Hydepark Street, Glasgow G3 8BW, UK, E-mail:


Rationale and aim  Evidence of the benefits of clinical audit to patient care is limited, despite its longevity. Additionally, numerous attitudinal, professional and organizational barriers impede its effectiveness. Yet, audit remains a favoured quality improvement (QI) policy lever. Growing interest in QI techniques suggest it is timely to re-examine audit. Clinical audit advisors assist health care teams, so hold unique cross-cutting perspectives on the strategic and practical application of audit in NHS organizations. We aimed to explore their views and experiences of their role in supporting health care teams in the audit process.

Method  Qualitative study using semi-structured and focus group interviews. Participants were purposively sampled (n = 21) across health sectors in two large Scottish NHS Boards. Interviews were audio-taped, transcribed and a thematic analysis performed.

Results  Work pressure and lack of protected time were cited as audit barriers, but these hide other reasons for non-engagement. Different professions experience varying opportunities to participate. Doctors have more opportunities and may dominate or frustrate the process. Audit is perceived as a time-consuming, additional chore and a managerially driven exercise with no associated professional rewards. Management failure to support and resource changes fuels low motivation and disillusionment. Audit is regarded as a ‘political’ tool stifled by inter-professional differences and contextual constraints.

Conclusions  The findings echo previous studies. We found limited evidence that audit as presently defined and used is meeting policy makers' aspirations. The quality and safety improvement focus is shifting towards ‘alternative’ systems-based QI methods, but research to suggest that these will be any more impactful is also lacking. Additionally, identified professional, educational and organizational barriers still need to be overcome. A debate on how best to overcome the limitations of audit and its place alongside other approaches to QI is necessary.

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