“It’s good to feel like you’re doing something”: a qualitative study examining state health department employees’ views on why ineffective programs continue to be implemented in the USA

Jan 15, 2022 | Mazzucca

BACKGROUND: Mis-implementation, the inappropriate continuation of programs or policies that are not evidence-based or the inappropriate termination of evidence-based programs and policies, can lead to the inefficient use of scarce resources in public health agencies and decrease the ability of these agencies to deliver effective programs and improve population health. Little is known about why mis-implementation occurs, which is needed to understand how to address it. This study sought to understand the state health department practitioners’ perspectives about what makes programs ineffective and the reasons why ineffective programs continue.

METHODS: Eight state health departments (SHDs) were selected to participate in telephone-administered qualitative interviews about decision-making around ending or continuing programs. States were selected based on geographic representation and on their level of mis-implementation (low and high) categorized from our previous national survey. Forty-four SHD chronic disease staff participated in interviews, which were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were consensus coded, and themes were identified and summarized. This paper presents two sets of themes, related to (1) what makes a program ineffective and (2) why ineffective programs continue to be implemented according to SHD staff.

RESULTS: Participants considered programs ineffective if they were not evidence-based or if they did not fit well within the population; could not be implemented well due to program restraints or a lack of staff time and resources; did not reach those who could most benefit from the program; or did not show the expected program outcomes through evaluation. Practitioners described several reasons why ineffective programs continued to be implemented, including concerns about damaging the relationships with partner organizations, the presence of program champions, agency capacity, and funding restrictions.

CONCLUSIONS: The continued implementation of ineffective programs occurs due to a number of interrelated organizational, relational, human resources, and economic factors. Efforts should focus on preventing mis-implementation since it limits public health agencies’ ability to conduct evidence-based public health, implement evidence-based programs effectively, and reduce the high burden of chronic diseases. The use of evidence-based decision-making in public health agencies and supporting adaptation of programs to improve their fit may prevent mis-implementation. Future work should identify effective strategies to reduce mis-implementation, which can optimize public health practice and improve population health.

PubMed Abstract

Mazzucca, S., Saliba, L. F., Smith, R., Weno, E. R., Allen, P., Padek, M., & Brownson, R. C. (2022). "It's good to feel like you're doing something": a qualitative study examining state health department employees' views on why ineffective programs continue to be implemented in the USA. Implement Sci Commun, 3(1), 4. doi:10.1186/s43058-021-00252-4