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The Productive Ward quality improvement programme has shown some procedural changes on hospital wards in England in the 10 years since it was introduced. But evidence to show any sustained changes to the experiences of staff or patients is hard to find.

This NIHR-funded study used quantitative and qualitative methods to evaluate the programme in six acute hospitals in England. It found some evidence of a lasting impact, such as wards continuing to display metrics and using equipment storage systems. But most hospitals that adopted the programme had stopped using it after three years, often due to a change in their approach to quality improvement.

Productive Ward resources are still available from NHS England’s Sustainable Improvement team, but are under review. This evaluation may be helpful in designing future similar schemes.

Why was this study needed?

‘The Productive Ward: Releasing time to careTM’ was a quality improvement programme developed by the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement (NHSI) and introduced in 2007. It was designed to improve efficiency, productivity and performance at ward level in acute hospitals.

It was based on three principles:

  • good ward organisation so that materials were readily accessible
  • displaying ward-level metrics such as patient safety and experience
  • use of visual aids to understand patient status at a glance.

It also included a number of modules covering hygiene, shift handovers and protected mealtimes. In 2008, based on promising evidence from early test sites, £50m was invested to implement the programme widely in the NHS.

By 2012, it had been implemented in over 70% of all acute wards in the UK. Several other countries also introduced it.

This study investigated whether Productive Ward had a sustained impact in the ten years after it was introduced.

What did this study do?

The study used several methods to retrospectively evaluate the impact of Productive Ward. The authors carried out two national online surveys, staff and public interviews, observations and document analysis.

One survey had responses from 56 directors of nursing, and the other included responses from 35 current or recent Productive Ward leads.

The researchers then carried out case studies in six acute trusts that adopted Productive Ward at different times. These included interviews with 88 staff, patient and public involvement representatives, and 10 ward manager questionnaires. They also undertook structured observations on 12 randomly selected wards and analysed relevant documents.

In addition, they conducted telephone interviews with 14 former Productive Ward leads.

The study relied on the participants’ recall of events over 10 years. Separating the impact of Productive Ward from other subsequent quality improvement initiatives was sometimes difficult.

What did it find?

  • The surveys confirmed the rapid adoption and implementation of Productive Ward in England with most trusts starting in 2008-09, using a phased approach. Full roll-out was reported in 74% of cases. No trusts started using Productive Ward after 2012. Early adopters had access to more resources for supporting implementation.
  • Productive Ward is no longer systematically being used as a quality improvement tool in most trusts in England. Most trusts have stopped financial and management support for Productive Ward and 61% of the directors of nursing report that it is no longer regularly used. The average length of Productive Ward use was three years (range less than one to seven years).
  • The most commonly given reason for stopping Productive Ward was a change in the trust’s quality improvement approach, but Productive Ward leads in 97% of trusts (32 out of 33) reported that some elements were still being used. In all case studies, there was evidence of some material legacies, such as displays of metrics and equipment storage systems. However, these were not always being used appropriately. Some processes, such as protected mealtimes, were also still in evidence. The authors found that Productive Ward tools were rarely used to identify problems and potential solutions on an ongoing basis.
  • There was little evidence of Productive Ward transforming processes on hospital wards in the decade since it was introduced. In three of the six case studies, there was some evidence of it being customised or adapted into routine practices. But in the other three, Productive Ward was found to have been adopted only superficially, with little change to the functioning of the wards.
  • About one-third of trusts had impact data relating specifically to Productive Ward. Only one case study site had data collection systems that were robust enough to allow an objective assessment of the programme’s impact. In that site, care processes had improved initially, in terms of patient observations and direct care time. But there was no association with patient satisfaction.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

There is no national guidance on implementing and evaluating quality improvement initiatives. NHS Employers published a briefing in 2017 on staff involvement and quality improvement, which says that staff engagement is an essential part of a sustainable approach to quality improvement.

What are the implications?

This study did not find any lasting practical benefit from the Productive Ward quality improvement programme. Some ward practices and processes remained, but there was no evidence of their impact on staff or patients.

NHS England’s Sustainable Improvement team has been reviewing the NHS Productive Series, of which Productive Ward was one initiative. The findings from this study should help to inform the design and delivery of future programmes.

Future prospective evaluations of initiatives could avoid some of the inherent limitations of this retrospective evaluation.

Citation and Funding

Sarre S, Maben J, Griffiths P et al. The 10-year impact of a ward-level quality improvement intervention in acute hospitals: a multiple methods study. Health Serv Deliv Res. 2019;7(28).

This project was funded by the NIHR Health Services and Delivery Research Programme (project number 13/157/44).


Morgan-Cooke, M. Reviewing the Productives – what we’ve learned. Leeds: NHS England; 24 May 2019.

NHS Employers. Staff involvement, quality improvement and staff engagement: the missing links? Briefing 110. London: NHS Confederation; 2017.

NHS Improvement. Releasing time to care, the NHS Productive Series. London: NHS Improvement; accessed 12 September 2019.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre


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