The missing bit in the middle: Implementation of the Nationals Health Services Standards for Papua New Guinea

Elisabeth Schuele, Colin MacDougall

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Objective: This case study examined implementation of the National Health Services Standards (NHSSs) as a continuous quality improvement (CQI) process at three church-based health facilities in Papua New Guinea. This process was designed to improve quality of care and accredit the level three health centers to level four as district hospitals to provide a higher level of care. The aims of the paper are to critically examine driving and restraining forces in CQI implementation and analyses how power influences agenda setting for change.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine managers and eight health workers as well as three focus group discussions with health workers from three rural church-based health facilities in Morobe and Madang provinces. They included senior, mid-level and frontline managers and medical doctors, health extension officers, nursing officers and community health workers. Thematic analysis was used as an inductive and deductive process in which applied force field analysis, leadership-member exchange (LMX) theory and agenda setting was applied. 

Results: Qualitative analysis showed how internal and external factors created urgency for change. The CQI process was designed as a collective process. Power relations operated at and between various levels: the facilities, which supported or undermined the change process; between management whereby the national management supported the quality improvement agenda, but the regional management exercised positional power in form of inaction. Theoretical analysis identified the ‘missing bit in the middle’ shaped by policy actors who exercise power over policy formulation and constrained financial and technical resources. Analysis revealed how to reduce restraining forces and build on driving forces to establish a new equilibrium. 

Conclusion: Multiple theories contributed to the analysis showing how to resolve problematic power relations by building high-quality, effective communication of senior leadership with mid-level management and reactivated broad collaborative processes at the health facilities. Addressing the ‘missing bit in the middle’ by agenda setting can improve implementation of the NHSSs as a quality improvement process. The paper concludes with learning for policy makers, managers and health workers by highlighting to pay close attention to institutional power dynamics and practices.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0266931
Number of pages18
JournalPLoS One
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2022


  • National Health Services Standards
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Health care delivery


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