BACKGROUND: Health systems interventions, such as capacity-building of health workers, are implemented across districts in order to improve performance of healthcare organisations. However, such interventions often work in some settings and not in others. Local health systems could be visualised as complex adaptive systems that respond variously to inputs of capacity building interventions, depending on their local conditions and several individual, institutional, and environmental factors. We aim at demonstrating how the realist evaluation approach advances complex systems thinking in healthcare evaluation by applying the approach to understand organisational change within local health systems in the Tumkur district of southern India.
METHODS: We collected data on several input, process, and outcome measures of performance of the talukas (administrative sub-units of the district) and explore the interplay between the individual, institutional, and contextual factors in contributing to the outcomes using qualitative data (interview transcripts and observation notes) and quantitative measures of commitment, self-efficacy, and supervision style.
RESULTS: The talukas of Tumkur district responded differently to the intervention. Their responses can be explained by the interactions between several individual, institutional, and environmental factors. In a taluka with committed staff and a positive intention to make changes, the intervention worked through aligning with existing opportunities from the decentralisation process to improve performance. However, commitment towards the organisation was neither crucial nor sufficient. Committed staff in two other talukas were unable to actualise their intentions to improve organisational performance. In yet another taluka, the leadership was able to compensate for the lack of commitment.
CONCLUSIONS: Capacity building of local health systems could work through aligning or countering existing relationships between internal (individual and organisational) and external (policy and socio-political environment) attributes of the organisation. At the design and implementation stage, intervention planners need to identify opportunities for such triggering alignments. Local health systems may differ in their internal configuration and hence capacity building programmes need to accommodate possibilities for change through different pathways. By a process of formulating and testing hypotheses, making critical comparisons, discovering empirical patterns, and monitoring their scope and extent, a realist evaluation enables a comprehensive assessment of system-wide change in health systems.