Governments often create policies that rely on implementation by arms length organizations and require practice changes on the part of different segments of the health care system without understanding the differences in and complexities of these agencies. In 2000, in response to publicity about the shortening length of postpartum hospital stay, the Ontario government created a universal program offering up to a 60-hour postpartum stay and a public health follow-up to mothers and newborn infants. The purpose of this paper is to examine how a health policy initiative was implemented in two different parts of a health care system and to analyze the barriers and facilitators to achieving practice change.
The data reported came from two studies of postpartum health and service use in Ontario Canada. Data were collected from newly delivered mothers who had uncomplicated vaginal deliveries. The study samples were drawn from the same five purposefully selected hospitals for both studies. Questionnaires prior to discharge and structured telephone interviews at 4-weeks post discharge were used to collect data before and after policy implementation. Qualitative data were collected using focus groups with hospital and community-based health care practitioners and administrators at each site.
In both studies, the respondents reflected a population of women who experienced an "average" or non-eventful hospital-based, singleton vaginal delivery. The findings of the second study demonstrated wide variance in implementation of the offer of a 60-hour stay among the sites and focus groups revealed that none of the hospitals acknowledged the 60-hour stay as an official policy. The uptake of the offer of a 60-hour stay was unrelated to the rate of offer. The percentage of women with a hospital stay of less than 25 hours and the number with the guideline that the call be within 48 hours of hospital discharge. Public health telephone contact was high although variable in relation to compliance the guideline that the call be within 48 hours of hospital discharge. Home visits were offered at consistently high rates.
Policy enactment is sometimes inadequate to stimulate practice changes in health care. Policy as a tool for practice change must thoughtfully address the organizational, professional, and social contexts within which the policy is to be implemented. These contexts can either facilitate or block implementation. Our examination of Ontario's universal postpartum program provides an example of differential implementation of a common policy intended to change post-natal care practices that reflects the differential influence of context on implementation.