The influence of contextual factors on healthcare quality improvement initiatives: a realist review

Emma Coles (Lead / Corresponding author), Julie Anderson, Margaret Maxwell, Fiona M. Harris, Nicola M. Gray, Gill Milner, Stephen MacGillivray

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    65 Citations (Scopus)
    73 Downloads (Pure)


    Background: Recognising the influence of context and the context-sensitive nature of quality improvement (QI) interventions is crucial to implementing effective improvements and successfully replicating them in new settings, yet context is still poorly understood. To address this challenge, it is necessary to capture generalisable knowledge, first to understand which aspects of context are most important to QI and why, and secondly, to explore how these factors can be managed to support healthcare improvement, in terms of implementing successful improvement initiatives, achieving sustainability and scaling interventions. The research question was how and why does context influence quality improvement initiatives in healthcare?

    Methods: A realist review explored the contextual conditions that influence healthcare improvement. Realist methodology integrates theoretical understanding and stakeholder input with empirical research findings. The review aimed to identify and understand the role of context during the improvement cycle, i.e. planning, implementation, sustainability and transferability; and distil new knowledge to inform the design and development of context-sensitive QI initiatives. We developed a preliminary theory of the influence of context to arrive at a conceptual and theoretical framework.

    Results: Thirty-five studies were included in the review, demonstrating the interaction of key contextual factors across healthcare system levels during the improvement cycle. An evidence-based explanatory theoretical model is proposed to illustrate the interaction between contextual factors, system levels (macro, meso, micro) and the stages of the improvement journey. Findings indicate that the consideration of these contextual factors would enhance the design and delivery of improvement initiatives, across a range of improvement settings.

    Conclusions: This is the first realist review of context in QI and contributes to a deeper understanding of how context influences quality improvement initiatives. The distillation of key contextual factors offers the potential to inform the design and development of context-sensitive interventions to enhance improvement initiatives and address the challenge of spread and sustainability. Future research should explore the application of our conceptual model to enhance improvement-planning processes.

    Systematic review registration: PROSPERO CRD42017062135.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number94
    Number of pages22
    JournalSystematic Reviews
    Issue number1
    Early online date26 Apr 2020
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


    • Context
    • Evidence-based practice
    • Health improvement
    • Healthcare
    • Implementation
    • Knowledge translation
    • Quality improvement
    • Realist review
    • Realist synthesis
    • Research

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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