Open Access Research article

More than a checklist: a realist evaluation of supervision of mid-level health workers in rural Guatemala

Alison R Hernández*, Anna-Karin Hurtig, Kjerstin Dahlblom and Miguel San Sebastián

Author Affiliations

Umeå International School of Public Health, Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden

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BMC Health Services Research 2014, 14:112  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-14-112

Published: 6 March 2014

Abstract

Background

Mid-level health workers (MLHWs) form the front-line of service delivery in many low- and middle-income countries. Supervision is a critical institutional intervention linking their work to the health system, and it consists of activities intended to support health workers’ motivation and enable them to perform. However its impact depends not only on the frequency of these activities but also how they are carried out and received. This study aims to deepen understanding of the mechanisms through which supervision activities support the performance of auxiliary nurses, a cadre of MLHWs, in rural Guatemala.

Methods

A multiple case study was conducted to examine the operation of supervision of five health posts using a realist evaluation approach. A program theory was formulated describing local understanding of how supervision activities are intended to work. Data was collected through interviews and document review to test the theory. Analysis focused on comparison of activities, outcomes, mechanisms and the influence of context across cases, leading to revision of the program theory.

Results

The supervisor’s orientation was identified as the main mechanism contributing to variation observed in activities and their outcomes. Managerial control was the dominant orientation, reflecting the influence of standardized performance criteria and institutional culture. Humanized support was present in one case where the auxiliary nurse was motivated by the sense that the full scope of her work was valued. This orientation reflected the supervisor’s integration of her professional identity as a nurse.

Conclusions

The nature of the support health workers received was shaped by supervisors’ orientation, and in this study, nursing principles were central to humanized support. Efforts to strengthen the support that supervision provides to MLHWs should promote professional ethos as a means of developing shared performance goals and orient supervisors to a more holistic view of the health worker and their work.

Keywords:
Mid-level health worker; Supervision; Performance; Motivation; Realist evaluation; Guatemala