Process evaluation for complex interventions in health services research: Analysing context, text trajectories and disruptions

Jamie Murdoch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Process evaluations assess the implementation and sustainability of complex healthcare interventions within clinical trials, with well-established theoretical models available for evaluating intervention delivery within specific contexts. However, there is a need to translate conceptualisations of context into analytical tools which enable the dynamic relationship between context and intervention implementation to be captured and understood.

Methods: In this paper I propose an alternative approach to the design, implementation and analysis of process evaluations for complex health interventions through a consideration of trial protocols as textual documents, distributed and enacted at multiple contextual levels. As an example, I conduct retrospective analysis of a sample of field notes and transcripts collected during the ESTEEM study - a cluster randomised controlled trial of primary care telephone triage. I draw on theoretical perspectives associated with Linguistic Ethnography to examine the delivery of ESTEEM through staff orientation to different texts. In doing so I consider what can be learned from examining the flow and enactment of protocols for notions of implementation and theoretical fidelity (i.e. intervention delivered as intended and whether congruent with the intervention theory).

Results: Implementation of the triage intervention required staff to integrate essential elements of the protocol within everyday practice, seen through the adoption and use of different texts that were distributed across staff and within specific events. Staff were observed deploying texts in diverse ways (e.g. reinterpreting scripts, deviating from standard operating procedures, difficulty completing decision support software), providing numerous instances of disruption to maintaining intervention fidelity. Such observations exposed tensions between different contextual features in which the trial was implemented, offering theoretical explanations for the main trial findings.

Conclusions: The value of following how trial protocols produce new texts is that we can observe the flow of 'the intervention as intended' across a series of events which are enacted to meet specific demands of intervention delivery. Such observations are not solely premised on identifying routines or practices of implementation, but where 'protocols as intended' breaks down. In doing so, I discuss whether it is here where we might expose the 'active ingredients' of interventions in action.
Original languageEnglish
Article number407
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2016


  • Complex health interventions
  • Context
  • Linguistic ethnography
  • Process evaluation
  • Randomised controlled trials

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