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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The influence of power dynamics and trust on multidisciplinary collaboration: a qualitative case study of type 2 diabetes mellitus

Julie McDonald1*, Rohan Jayasuriya2 and Mark Fort Harris1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

2 School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

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BMC Health Services Research 2012, 12:63  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-12-63

Published: 13 March 2012

Abstract

Background

Ongoing care for chronic conditions such as diabetes is best provided by a range of health professionals working together. There are challenges in achieving this where collaboration crosses organisational and sector boundaries. The aim of this article is to explore the influence of power dynamics and trust on collaboration between health professionals involved in the management of diabetes and their impact on patient experiences.

Methods

A qualitative case study conducted in a rural city in Australia. Forty five health service providers from nineteen organisations (including fee-for-service practices and block funded public sector services) and eight patients from two services were purposively recruited. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews that were audio-taped and transcribed. A thematic analysis approach was used using a two-level coding scheme and cross-case comparisons.

Results

Three themes emerged in relation to power dynamics between health professionals: their use of power to protect their autonomy, power dynamics between private and public sector providers, and reducing their dependency on other health professionals to maintain their power. Despite the intention of government policies to support more shared decision-making, there is little evidence that this is happening. The major trust themes related to role perceptions, demonstrated competence, and the importance of good communication for the development of trust over time. The interaction between trust and role perceptions went beyond understanding each other's roles and professional identity. The level of trust related to the acceptance of each other's roles. The delivery of primary and community-based health services that crosses organisational boundaries adds a layer of complexity to interprofessional relationships. The roles of and role boundaries between and within professional groups and services are changing. The uncertainty and vulnerability associated with these changes has affected the level of trust and mistrust.

Conclusions

Collaboration across organisational boundaries remains challenging. Power dynamics and trust affect the strategic choices made by each health professional about whether to collaborate, with whom, and to what level. These decisions directly influenced patient experiences. Unlike the difficulties in shifting the balance of power in interprofessional relationships, trust and respect can be fostered through a mix of interventions aimed at building personal relationships and establishing agreed rules that govern collaborative care and that are perceived as fair.