Evaluating a Community-Based Program to Improve Healthcare Quality: Research Design for the Aligning Forces for Quality Initiative

Published Online: September 22, 2012
Dennis P. Scanlon, PhD; Jeffrey A. Alexander, PhD; Jeff Beich, PhD; Jon B. Christianson, PhD; Romana Hasnain-Wynia, PhD; Megan C. McHugh, PhD; Jessica N. Mittler, PhD; Yunfeng Shi, PhD; and Laura J. Bodenschatz, MSW
Objective: The Aligning Forces for Quality (AF4Q) initiative is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF’s) signature effort to increase the overall quality of healthcare in targeted communities throughout the country. In addition to sponsoring this 16-site, complex program, the RWJF funds an independent scientific evaluation to support objective research on the initiative’s effectiveness and contributions to basic knowledge in 5 core programmatic areas. The research design, data, and challenges faced in the evaluation of this 10-year initiative are discussed.
Study Design: A descriptive overview of the evaluation research design for a multi-site, community based, healthcare quality improvement initiative is provided.
Methods: The multiphase research design employed by the evaluation team is discussed.
Results: Evaluation provides formative feedback to the RWJF, participants, and other interested audiences in real time; develops approaches to assess innovative and under-studied interventions; furthers the analysis and understanding of effective community-based collaborative work in healthcare; and helps to differentiate the various facilitators, barriers, and contextual dimensions that affect the implementation and outcomes of community-based health interventions.
Conclusions: The AF4Q initiative is arguably the largest community-level healthcare improvement demonstration in the United States to date; it is being implemented at a time of rapid change in national healthcare policy. The implementation of large-scale, multi-site initiatives is becoming an increasingly common approach for addressing problems in healthcare. The evaluation research design for the AF4Q initiative, and the lessons learned from its approach, may be valuable to others tasked with evaluating similar community-based initiatives.

(Am J Manag Care. 2012;18:eS165-eS176)



The Aligning Forces for Quality (AF4Q) initiative, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), is a multi-site, multi-year initiative with the overarching goals of improving the quality of healthcare and reducing health disparities in its 16 participant communities, and providing models for national reform.1 Launched in 2006, the AF4Q initiative comprises multiple interventions and goals, which are being developed and revised throughout the program’s 10-year course.2 In addition to being a complex and ambitious initiative in its own right, the AF4Q initiative is being implemented at a time of rapid change in the healthcare arena, when there is a growing awareness of the multiple determinants of health and healthcare quality, and significant national change in healthcare policy.3,4

Along with sponsoring the AF4Q initiative, arguably the largest healthcare improvement demonstration project on a community level in the United States to date, the RWJF also dedicates funding to support an independent impartial scientific evaluation of the program. This article provides a description of the research design, data, and limitations of the independent evaluation of the AF4Q initiative. The core purposes of the AF4Q evaluation are to contribute to basic knowledge in 5 main programmatic areas, and answer key questions about its effectiveness in each of these areas: (1) measurement and public reporting; (2) quality improvement; (3) consumer engagement; (4) equity/disparities reduction; and (5) payment reform. Additionally, the evaluation team will answer questions about the effect of aligning the individual programmatic areas. The evaluation team systematically collects evidence related to the facilitators, barriers, and successes of community-based health reform activities and presents it to policy makers, program funders, and communities that are undertaking or contemplating similarly complex initiatives. The AF4Q evaluation also contributes to the health services research literature.

The AF4Q Initiative: A Complex and Emergent Program

In their seminal work on realistic program evaluation, Pawson and Tilley wrote, “Programs work (have successful ‘outcomes’) only in so far as they introduce the appropriate ideas and opportunities (‘mechanisms’) to groups in the appropriate social and cultural conditions (‘contexts’).”5 As shown in the evaluation team’s logic model (Figure), the mechanisms of the AF4Q initiative are a combination of multiple, evolving, targeted interventions; funding; goals for the targeted areas; and various opportunities for technical assistance. Details of this primary logic model, as well as models for the specific program areas, are described in the article by Scanlon et al in this supplement.2 In general, as the Figure illustrates, the theory of change underlying the AF4Q initiative assumes that alliances (the generic term for the multi-stakeholder partnership in each AF4Q community) will coalesce around designing and implementing programmatic interventions. These interventions are hypothesized to influence intermediate outcomes on the way to improving targeted long-term outcomes. It is expected that it will take some time for the multi-stakeholder initiatives to develop and implement meaningful population-level interventions, and that the timelines will vary for alliances in different communities based on local context and prior experience. As the logic model illustrates, the alliances operate in an environment with many relevant external influences, including changes to state and federal healthcare policy. Complexity in the program is inherent since the RWJF’s goal was to establish a dynamic program that would evolve as the work and learning in the participant communities progressed.

The multi-stakeholder alliances charged with implementing the AF4Q interventions operate within a diverse set of communities with distinct social, demographic, and cultural characteristics. These contextual differences suggest that the program interventions may not be homogeneous across participants. The 10-year lifespan of the initiative and other factors related to timing add to the complexity of the evaluation. For example, the initial formation dates of the alliances vary considerably. Not only were communities added during different phases of the AF4Q initiative, some alliances were in existence long before its launch, whereas others were formed or expanded in response to the initiative. Additionally, implementation of the interventions may occur at a different pace in each of the communities for a variety of reasons, including whether any related work was under way in a particular area prior to receiving the AF4Q grant, the level of community engagement around each intervention, and the amount of time each alliance dedicated to achieving community agreement on individual decisions.

The Evaluation Research Questions

The AF4Q logic model serves as the focal point from which the research questions, research design, data collection, and data analysis plans for the evaluation are derived. The evaluation team’s research goals were purposefully balanced to identify both intermediate and long-term effects of the AF4Q initiative, and to balance the study of progress on these outcomes with an understanding about how and why progress does or does not occur. Thus, the evaluation was designed to include both a summative component, focused on the degree to which expected outcomes are achieved as a result of the program, and a formative component, tasked with developing an ongoing understanding of how the AF4Q initiative unfolds and the expectation that the evaluation team would share information and lessons learned throughout the life of its study. The formative component of the AF4Q evaluation includes frequent and ongoing sharing of information with internal audiences including the RWJF, the AF4Q National Program Office, AF4Q technical assistance providers, and the AF4Q alliances. Formative observations are also shared with external audiences, in the form of research summaries and presentations, and are targeted toward policy makers, healthcare funders, or those in other communities interested in work to improve local healthcare systems.

The AF4Q evaluation research questions are broad and comprehensive. The summative questions focus on the long-term outcomes of the logic model, and the more granular questions focus formatively on the processes used to develop and implement interventions. Some of the research questions also focus on variations in outcomes and processes across alliances, and factors that explain such variations. While the full set of detailed research questions is too voluminous to include in this article, a sample of AF4Q evaluation research questions is included in the Table. The Table organizes research questions according to the relevant component(s) of the logic model and indicates whether a research question is primarily summative or formative in nature.

The AF4Q Evaluation Research Design

Because of the AF4Q initiative’s complex, changing, and voluntary nature, the evaluation team recognized from the outset that a standard experimental design was not appropriate or useful, and that a flexible, rather than fixed, research design was needed. Thus, the interdisciplinary AF4Q evaluation team employs a multiphase research design to study this complex multi-site program. A multiphase design, sometimes referred to as a methodological triangulated design, is one in which there are 2 or more subdesigns. Each subdesign, or “subproject,” has independent methodological integrity and complements the other(s) to attain the goals of the overall research design.6,7 Because of the underlying complexity of the program, there are multiple subprojects used in the AF4Q initiative to study the various programmatic areas and their alignment.

As an illustration of how a subproject relates to the overall design, the evaluation team recognized that much of the early work for grantee alliances involved establishing infrastructure, assembling stakeholders, and agreeing on vision and goals. Because of this, the evaluation team focuses not only on the study of the interventions and their effects, but also on the approaches to governance and organization employed in each grantee community. In accordance with its multiphase design, the evaluation team plans to link its findings about programmatic outcomes to the important local governance, organization, and contextual factors identified through its governance-focused work. By bringing these complementary pieces of the overall research design together, the evaluation team is able to assess factors related to the variation in the progress and effect of the program across AF4Q communities and the programmatic areas.

There are several key research challenges that influenced the choices of the team and were common to all or most portions of the evaluation of the AF4Q initiative. Those challenges are discussed below.

Changing and Emergent Program

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