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Open Access Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 37(5)

The role of boards in clinical governance: activities and attitudes among members of public health service boards in Victoria

Marie M. Bismark A B , Simon J. Walter A and David M. Studdert A

A University of Melbourne, 207 Bouverie Street, Carlton, Vic. 3010, Australia. Email: swalter@unimelb.edu.au, d.studdert@unimelb.edu.au
B Corresponding author. Email: mbismark@unimelb.edu.au

Australian Health Review 37(5) 682-687 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/AH13125
Submitted: 18 June 2013  Accepted: 5 September 2013   Published: 4 November 2013

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Objectives To determine the nature and extent of governance activities by health service boards in relation to quality and safety of care and to gauge the expertise and perspectives of board members in this area.

Methods This study used an online and postal survey of the Board Chair, Quality Committee Chair and two randomly selected members from the boards of all 85 health services in Victoria. Seventy percent (233/332) of members surveyed responded and 96% (82/85) of boards had at least one member respond.

Results Most boards had quality performance as a standing item on meeting agendas (79%) and reviewed data on medication errors and hospital-acquired infections at least quarterly (77%). Fewer boards benchmarked their service’s quality performance against external comparators (50%) or offered board members formal training on quality (53%). Eighty-two percent of board members identified quality as a top priority for board oversight, yet members generally considered their boards to be a relatively minor force in shaping the quality of care. There was a positive correlation between the size of health services (total budget, inpatient separations) and their board’s level of engagement in quality-related activities. Ninety percent of board members indicated that additional training in quality and safety would be ‘moderately useful’ or ‘very useful’. Almost every respondent believed the overall quality of care their service delivered was as good as, or better than, the typical Victorian health service.

Conclusions Collectively, health service boards are engaged in an impressive range of clinical governance activities. However, the extent of engagement is uneven across boards, certain knowledge deficits are evident and there was wide agreement among board members that further training in quality-related issues would be useful.

What is known about the topic? There is an emerging international consensus that effective board leadership is a vital element of high-quality healthcare. In Australia, new National Health Standards require all public health service boards to have a ‘system of governance that actively manages patient safety and quality risks’.

What does this paper add? Our survey of all public health service Boards in Victoria found that, overall, boards are engaged in an impressive range of clinical governance activities. However, tensions are evident. First, whereas some boards are strongly engaged in clinical governance, others report relatively little activity. Second, despite 8 in 10 members rating quality as a top board priority, few members regarded boards as influential players in determining it. Third, although members regarded their boards as having strong expertise in quality, there were signs of knowledge limitations, including: near consensus that (additional) training would be useful; unfamiliarity with key national quality documents; and overly optimistic beliefs about quality performance.

What are the implications for practitioners? There is scope to improve board expertise in clinical governance through tailored training programs. Better board reporting would help to address the concern of some board members that they are drowning in data yet thirsty for meaningful information. Finally, standardised frameworks for benchmarking internal quality data against external measures would help boards to assess the performance of their own health service and identify opportunities for improvement.


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