Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Primary healthcare in transition – a qualitative study of how managers perceived a system change

Andy Maun1*, Kerstin Nilsson2, Carina Furåker2 and Jörgen Thorn1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public Health and Community Medicine/Primary Health Care, Institute of Medicine, The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Box 414, 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden

2 Institute of Health and Caring Science, The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Box 457, 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden

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BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:382  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-382

Published: 3 October 2013



Primary healthcare in Sweden has undergone widespread reforms in recent years, including freedom of choice regarding provider, freedom of establishment and increased privatisation. The key aims of the reforms were to strengthen the role of the patient and improve performance in terms of access and responsiveness. The aim of this study was to explore how managers at publicly owned primary healthcare centres perceived the transition of the primary healthcare system and the impact it has had on their work.


In this qualitative study, 24 managers of publicly owned primary healthcare centres in the metropolitan region of Gothenburg were recruited. Semi-structured interviews were conducted and data were analysed using content analysis inspired by Silverman.


The analysis revealed two core themes: The transition is perceived as a rapid change, enforced mainly through financial incentives and Prioritisation conflicts arise between patient groups with different needs, demands and levels of empowerment. The transition has produced powerful and rapid effects that were considered to be both positive and negative. While the new financial incentives were seen as a driving force and a tool for change, they also became a stress factor due to uncertainty, competition with other primary healthcare centres and negative feelings associated with staff cutbacks. The shift in power towards the patient improved access and service but also led to more patients with unreasonable demands. Managers found it difficult to prioritise correctly between patient groups with different needs, demands and levels of empowerment and they were concerned about potentially negative effects on less empowered patients, e.g. multi-morbid patients. Managers also experienced shortcomings in their change management skills.


This qualitative study shows the complexity of the system change and describes the different effects and perceptions of the transition from a manager’s perspective. This suggests a need for improved follow-up and control in order to monitor and govern system changes and ensure development towards a more effective and sustainable primary healthcare system.

Qualitative research; Leadership; Practice management; Health care reform