Rapid, real-time feedback from evaluation, as well as programme flexibility, is vital to health service improvement

By Tom Woodcock


We should learn from Melanesian Islanders that feedback provides the deep understanding of interventions which is key to wide-scale, successful roll-out, says Tom Woodcock

Osmar White, the Australian war correspondent, told an amazing story about how, after the Second World War, when military bases had closed in the Pacific, Melanesian Islanders built crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicked the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them. White’s book, ‘Parliament of a Thousand Tribes’, explains how the islanders were trying to reproduce the glut of goods and products that Japanese and American combatants had brought to the region. They believed that they could actually summon these goods again.

In her recent paper published in Implementation Science*, Professor Mary Dixon-Woods of Leicester University highlights this extraordinary story as a graphic illustration of how an innovation fails to be replicated successfully in different circumstances because there is poor understanding of the original intervention. It illuminates the difficulties that can arise when one tries to implement and roll out improvement programmes.  Deep understanding of the intervention is vital.

How do we achieve that understanding? It’s a big issue for NIHR’s Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC). In Northwest London, we’re funded for the next five years to accelerate the translation of health research into patient care. Our experience is that rapid and continuous real-time feedback from evaluation, combined with flexibility in programme adaptation, is vital to ensure rapid improvement of health service practice. It is also central to meeting the longer-term challenges of achieving sustainability and reproducibility of change.

Challenges of transferring successful interventions

The nature of the challenge was highlighted by the Michigan Central Line Project. This was a highly successful US quality improvement project designed to reduce central line infections. Mortality was reduced significantly. ‘Matching Michigan’ was a subsequent initiative in 200 English hospitals to replicate Michigan’s results. It didn’t work as well as hoped. Drawing parallels with the Melanesian story, Professor Dixon-Woods’ paper argues that the Michigan innovation transfer likewise demonstrated inadequate understanding of the true intervention.

How can real-time evaluation help to avoid these misunderstandings? First, it offers a better chance to optimise interventions in their original settings, as well as in subsequent roll-out sites. Secondly, it can lead to a richer, more real understanding of the system and how it works. This can lead, I believe, to a fuller evaluation and more successful transferability.  The opportunity offered by real-time evaluation might be at a specific project level, implementing an intervention at a specific setting, but its strengths are also useful at higher policy levels and in the support and training levels lying between policy and practice.

Why does testing an intervention in situ with real time evaluative feedback produce a better eventual implementation? That’s partly due to being able to fit the intervention to its context effectively. The project team gain much better insight into what is actually currently happening during implementation, which is sometimes highly complex, making it easy to miss key aspects of what is occurring. There can also be early checks on the intended impacts – if an intervention is being implemented successfully but not improving outcomes, there are statistical approaches that allow evaluators to explore the reasons quickly and take appropriate action. Feedback also increases motivation and engagement within the initiative, encouraging reflective thought.

A closer working relationship between evaluators and the team can expose underlying assumptions within an intervention which might otherwise be obscured. Typically, members of the team also better appreciate the value of evaluation, leading them to develop higher quality data. Team challenges to the data – observations that ‘this does not make sense to me’ – can be illuminating and help create both between and within site consistency. In her ‘Matching Michigan’ study, Mary Dixon-Woods highlights huge inconsistencies between the data collected in the different sites despite each site supposedly working to an agreed, common operational framework.  Achieving such consistency is extremely difficult.  Close working between the evaluation and implementation teams can help and it provides greater access to the mechanism in which, and by which, an intervention works. It offers a lot of information about sensitivity and specificity of measures.

Challenges of real time evaluation

Real time feedback and evaluation does have problems, being more resource intensive and potentially blurring the lines between an evaluation and the intervention itself. There are methodological challenges – if early feedback is followed by a working and responsive change, then the evaluation is, in theory, dealing with a different intervention from the one it began to examine.  Inevitably, there are questions about the impartiality of the evaluators if they work very closely with the implementation team.

At CLAHRC Northwest London, we reckon that the increased costs of real time feedback are more than outweighed by the benefits.  It helps that the very nature of the interactive feedback implies starting on a smaller scale, which can allow an initial programme to build in the interactive feedback and then later findings can be used to roll out.

It is vital to clarify the intervention.  Laura J Damschroder’s 2009 paper** published in Implementation Science reviews the literature to articulate a framework distinguishing the core and the periphery of an intervention. The core represents the defining characteristics which should be the same wherever implemented, but there is also the flexible, context-sensitive periphery.

Regarding concerns about compromising objectivity, that is essentially a case of planning carefully, delivering against the protocol and then justifying and accurately reporting any additional analyses or modifications so that anyone reading an evaluation understands what was planned originally and what was added as part of the interactive feedback.

Typically, people tend to think of two distinct processes – implementation and evaluation. In CLAHRC NWL, there is much more overlap.  The CLAHRC NWL support team essentially perform an evaluative role and attend implementation team meetings to provide real time evaluation feedback on the project measures. Biannually, Professor James Barlow and his team at Imperial College London provide evaluation of the CLARC NWL programme, predominantly at higher levels, but there is still an interactive process going on.

Clarity about interventions

Take, for example, our programme to improve the management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  There are some high level factors that we wish to influence by implementing the intervention, including reduced patient smoking, increased capacity to use inhalers properly when patients are out of hospital plus better general fitness and levels of exercise. There are a whole series of interventions, ranging from general availability of correct inhaler advice to much more specific provision of specialist staff education sessions, improving their ability to train patients in inhaler techniques. This is a useful way of separating the core of the intervention from the periphery – the more one is discussing generalities, the closer one is to the core of the intervention, whereas detailed particular measures are more sensitive to local context. So, for example, it may be in one hospital, there is already an embedded staff training programme on inhaler technique, so it is unnecessary to implement this peripheral intervention in that situation.

Implementation is clearly complex. Real time feedback, I believe, can help improvement programmes develop and to be implemented successfully.  It also can make for a better evaluation as well, but that requires very particular approaches to ensure rigour.

Dr Tom Woodcock is Head of Information at NIHR CLAHRC Northwest London and Health Foundation Improvement Science Fellow. This piece is based on a presentation that Dr Woodcock gave at the meeting ‘Evaluation – making it timely, useful, independent and rigorous’ on 4 July 2014, organised by PIRU at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in association with the NIHR School for Public Health Research and the Public Health Research Consortium (PHRC).


* Dixon-Woods, M. et al (2013) “Explaining Matching Michigan: an ethnographic study of a patient safety program”, Implementation Science 8:70.

** Damschroder, L.J. (2009) “Fostering implementation of health services research findings into practice: a consolidated framework for advancing implementation science”, Implementation Science 4:50.