How do Care Quality Commission hospital inspections measure up?

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Over the past few years we have seen several high-profile failures of care in NHS acute hospitals in England, leading many in the system to question the ability of performance management and regulatory mechanisms to identify and act on poor performance.

Last year, in response to these events and concerns, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) developed a new model for inspecting and regulating NHS acute hospitals and commissioned a team from Manchester Business School and The King’s Fund to evaluate the new and evolving approach as they rolled it out. Between October 2013 and April 2014, we directly observed hospital inspections, conducted interviews and online surveys with CQC and hospital staff, and observed many meetings and reviewed documents. Today we presented our report to the CQC board.

What we found was that hospital staff generally welcome the new regulatory approach, seeing it as much more credible, rigorous and in-depth, and much less likely to miss any issues of significant concern. But there are issues with some aspects – many of which the CQC is already addressing – such as its cost, pace and timing, and also with how inspections are followed up to address poor performance.

During our discussions with inspectors and trust staff, both groups said that CQC inspections ‘held a mirror up’ to the hospital, reflecting what they already knew about the hospital’s performance. Some trust staff referred to the inspection as ‘free consultancy’, welcoming the opportunity to receive targeted feedback on their performance as a way of highlighting areas for improvement. Some inspectors suggested that they would be more concerned if hospitals were not already aware of the issues that were raised through the inspection.

However, others were concerned about the added value of such findings, suggesting that inspections are not ‘free’ for the health care system, and questioning the use of a resource-intensive process to simply highlight issues that trusts are already aware of.

This begs the question – if hospitals already know what their problems are, what does inspection achieve?

Some hospital staff saw the inspection as an opportunity to refocus on issues that had been left on the backburner, or as a way for staff to raise the profile of issues that had not been prioritised or had not received the attention of senior leaders within the organisation.

The inspectors produce a detailed narrative report that describes the overall performance of the hospital. Serious concerns about performance lead to an enforcement process – a warning notice or compliance action for instance. However, in the absence of any formal enforcement, trusts were sometimes unclear about what they should do next – the action they were required to take; the necessary standard of improvement; the timescales of this improvement; who they should tell; and how and when they would be monitored or held to account.

Central to the logic of the new model is the assumption that CQC’s reports will lead to improvement actions by others. CQC sees its role as to ‘diagnose but not prescribe’, with trusts taking responsibility for follow-up actions themselves and other stakeholders taking a leading role in holding them to account. In particular, CQC relies on local commissioners and other national organisations (Monitor and the Trust Development Authority) to take on this role. While CQC might be clear about this, we observed that trusts, commissioners and other regulators were rather less certain about what happens next and their role in that process.

Without such follow-up, there is a risk that the report could be shelved and not used or acted upon until CQC themselves return for a further inspection. If the new approach to inspection is to be considered to provide a valuable contribution to quality improvement in the longer-term, the key issue may be how CQC’s inspections are going to be used and acted upon to improve care. There needs to be greater clarity about what actions are expected following an inspection, and trusts and other stakeholders will need to recognise their responsibilities for driving and assuring any improvements.

This blog was co-authored by Professor Kieran Walshe, Professor of Health Policy and Management at Manchester Business School, and lead author of the report. It also features on the British Medical Journal website.


Anton Duncan

Ex Inpatient,
Comment date
17 February 2017
How about "Undercover Boss" style agency staff used as plants? Even if the CQC do turn up unannounced they will NEVER see the true story of what goes on in acute units as the staff will obviously be on their best behaviour and attempt to cover up their incompetence. Talking from personal experience the current reports from the CQC are ridiculous when you realise how they are obtained. To think that little action is taken, when problems are identified, beggars belief.

Veena Wadhwani

Senior Registrar,
A Reputable NHS Trust
Comment date
02 August 2014
The new initiatives by the CQC are commendable and I appreciate the good work you folks are doing. It is also interesting to see a flurry of internal emails and activity from trust managements in the wake of the impending CQC visits. Issues affecting patient care which have been raised by some frontline staff time and again are being addressed. Mock CQC inspections are being held. While any improvement activity is praiseworthy, what drives it will determine the sustainability of such efforts.
I also find it difficult to understand how the results of an inspection done after the dates of the visit are given months in advance, where enough time is allowed to cover the cracks for that inspection, will be a true reflection of the overall quality of services in any NHS hospital. Surely unannounced visits, during which direct observation data at the point of care and feedback from patients and frontline staff are collected, will be a better representation of the true standards of care being delivered to the patients. Or maybe the CQC should announce hospital visits three times each year (but actually visit on only one of these dates), this will keep everyone on their toes and keep focussed on issues continuously, thus providing high quality of patient care at all times and not just putting up a show for the CQC.

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