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Finding meaning: A realist-informed perspective on social risk screening and relationships as mechanisms of change

Bunce AE, Morrissey S, Kaufmann J, Krancari M, Bowen M, Gold R
Front Health Serv

Background: Social risk screening rates in many US primary care settings remain low. This realist-informed evaluation explored the mechanisms through which a tailored coaching and technical training intervention impacted social risk screening uptake in 26 community clinics across the United States.

Methods: Evaluation data sources included the documented content of interactions between the clinics and implementation support team and electronic health record (EHR) data. Following the realist approach, analysis was composed of iterative cycles of developing, testing and refining program theories about how the intervention did—or didn't—work, for whom, under what circumstances. Normalization Process Theory was applied to the realist program theories to enhance the explanatory power and transferability of the results.

Results: Analysis identified three overarching realist program theories. First, clinic staff perceptions about the role of standardized social risk screening in person-centered care—considered “good” care and highly valued—strongly impacted receptivity to the intervention. Second, the physicality of the intervention materials facilitated collaboration and impacted clinic leaders' perception of the legitimacy of the social risk screening implementation work. Third, positive relationships between the implementation support team members, between the support team and clinic champions, and between clinic champions and staff motivated and inspired clinic staff to engage with the intervention and to tailor workflows to their settings' needs. Study clinics did not always exhibit the social risk screening patterns anticipated by the program theories due to discrepant definitions of success between clinic staff (improved ability to provide contextualized, person-centered care) and the trial (increased rates of EHR-documented social risk screening). Aligning the realist program theories with Normalization Process Theory constructs clarified that the intervention as implemented emphasized preparation over operationalization and appraisal, providing insight into why the intervention did not successfully embed sustained systematic social risk screening in participating clinics.

Conclusion: The realist program theories highlighted the effectiveness and importance of intervention components and implementation strategies that support trusting relationships as mechanisms of change. This may be particularly important in social determinants of health work, which requires commitment and humility from health care providers and vulnerability on the part of patients.

Bunce AE, Morrissey S, Kaufmann J, Krancari M, Bowen M, Gold R. Finding meaning: a realist-informed perspective on social risk screening and relationships as mechanisms of change. Front Health Serv. 2023;3. DOI:10.3389/frhs.2023.1282292

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Publication year
Resource type
Peer Reviewed Research
Provider Experience of Care
Health Care Professionals
Social Determinant of Health
Not Specified
Study design
Other Study Design