Contracting with General Dental Services: a mixed-methods study on factors influencing responses to contracts in English general dental practice

Harris, Rebecca, Perkins, Elizabeth, Holt, Robin, Brown, Steve, Garner, Jayne, Mosedale, Sarah, Moss, Phil and Farrier, Alan orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-4989-2209 (2015) Contracting with General Dental Services: a mixed-methods study on factors influencing responses to contracts in English general dental practice. Health Services and Delivery Research, 3 (28). pp. 1-222. ISSN 2050-4349

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Independent contractor status of NHS general dental practitioners (GDPs) and general medical practitioners (GMPs) has meant that both groups have commercial as well as professional identities. Their relationship with the state is governed by a NHS contract, the terms of which have been the focus of much negotiation and struggle in recent years. Previous study of dental contracting has taken a classical economics perspective, viewing practitioners’ behaviour as a fully rational search for contract loopholes. We apply institutional theory to this context for the first time, where individuals’ behaviour is understood as being influenced by wider institutional forces such as growing consumer demands, commercial pressures and challenges to medical professionalism. Practitioners hold values and beliefs, and carry out routines and practices which are consistent with the field’s institutional logics. By identifying institutional logics in the dental practice organisational field, we expose where tensions exist, helping to explain why contracting appears as a continual cycle of reform and resistance.

To identify the factors which facilitate and hinder the use of contractual processes to manage and strategically develop General Dental Services, using a comparison with medical practice to highlight factors which are particular to NHS dental practice.

Following a systematic review of health-care contracting theory and interviews with stakeholders, we undertook case studies of 16 dental and six medical practices. Case study data collection involved interviews, observation and documentary evidence; 120 interviews were undertaken in all. We tested and refined our findings using a questionnaire to GDPs and further interviews with commissioners.

We found that, for all three sets of actors (GDPs, GMPs, commissioners), multiple logics exist. These were interacting and sometimes in competition. We found an emergent logic of population health managerialism in dental practice, which is less compatible than the other dental practice logics of ownership responsibility, professional clinical values and entrepreneurialism. This was in contrast to medical practice, where we found a more ready acceptance of external accountability and notions of the delivery of ‘cost-effective’ care. Our quantitative work enabled us to refine and test our conceptualisations of dental practice logics. We identified that population health managerialism comprised both a logic of managerialism and a public goods logic, and that practitioners might be resistant to one and not the other. We also linked individual practitioners’ behaviour to wider institutional forces by showing that logics were predictive of responses to NHS dental contracts at the dental chair-side (the micro level), as well as predictive of approaches to wider contractual relationships with commissioners (the macro level)
Responses to contracts can be shaped by environmental forces and not just determined at the level of the individual. In NHS medical practice, goals are more closely aligned with commissioning goals than in general dental practice. The optimal contractual agreement between GDPs and commissioners, therefore, will be one which aims at the ‘satisfactory’ rather than the ‘ideal’; and a ‘successful’ NHS dental contract is likely to be one where neither party promotes its self-interest above the other. Future work on opportunism in health care should widen its focus beyond the self-interest of providers and look at the contribution of contextual factors such as the relationship between the government and professional bodies, the role of the media, and providers’ social and professional networks.

The National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research programme.

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