Overseeing oversight: governance of quality and safety by hospital boards in the English NHS

Russell Mannion, Huw Davies, Tim Freeman, Ross Millar, Rowena Jacobs, Panos Kasteridis
Journal of Health Services Research & Policy 2015, 20 (1 Suppl): 9-16

OBJECTIVES: To contribute towards an understanding of hospital board composition and to explore board oversight of patient safety and health care quality in the English NHS.

METHODS: We reviewed the theory related to hospital board governance and undertook two national surveys about board management in NHS acute and specialist hospital trusts in England. The first survey was issued to 150 trusts in 2011/2012 and was completed online via a dedicated web tool. A total 145 replies were received (97% response rate). The second online survey was undertaken in 2012/2013 and targeted individual board members, using a previously validated standard instrument on board members' attitudes and competencies (the Board Self-Assessment Questionnaire). A total of 334 responses were received from 165 executive and 169 non-executive board members, providing at least one response from 95 of the 144 NHS trusts then in existence (66% response rate).

RESULTS: Over 90% of the English NHS trust boards had 10-15 members. We found no significant difference in board size between trusts of different types (e.g. Foundation Trusts versus non-Foundation Trusts and Teaching Hospital Trusts versus non-Teaching Hospital Trusts). Clinical representation on boards was limited: around 62% had three or fewer members with clinical backgrounds. For about two-thirds of the trusts (63%), board members with a clinical background comprised less than 30% of the members. Boards were using a wide range and mix of quantitative performance metrics and soft intelligence (e.g. walk-arounds, patient stories) to monitor their organisations with regard to patient safety. The Board Self-Assessment Questionnaire data showed generally high or very high levels of agreement with desirable statements of practice in each of its six dimensions. Aggregate levels of agreement within each dimension ranged from 73% (for the dimension addressing interpersonal issues) to 85% (on the political).

CONCLUSIONS: English NHS boards largely hold a wide range of attitudes and behaviours that might be expected to benefit patient safety and quality. However, there is significant scope for improvement as regards formal training for board members on quality and safety, routine morbidity reporting at boards and attention to the interpersonal dynamics within boards. Directors with clinical backgrounds remain a minority on most boards despite policies to increase their representation. A better understanding of board composition, actions and attitudes should help refine policy recommendations around boards.

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