Loss associated with subtractive health service change: The case of specialist cancer centralization in England

Georgia B Black, Victoria J Wood, Angus I G Ramsay, Cecilia Vindrola-padros, Catherine Perry, Caroline S Clarke, Claire Levermore, Kathy Pritchard-jones, Axel Bex, Maxine G B Tran, David C Shackley, John Hines, Muntzer M Mughal, Naomi J Fulop

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Major system change can be stressful for staff involved and can result in ‘subtractive change’ – that is, when a part of the work environment is removed or ceases to exist. Little is known about the response to loss of activity resulting from such changes. Our aim was to understand perceptions of loss in response to centralization of cancer services in England, where 12 sites offering specialist surgery were reduced to four, and to understand the impact of leadership and management on enabling or hampering coping strategies associated with that loss.

We analysed 115 interviews with clinical, nursing and managerial staff from oesophago-gastric, prostate/bladder and renal cancer services in London and West Essex. In addition, we used 134 hours of observational data and analysis from over 100 documents to contextualize and to interpret the interview data. We performed a thematic analysis drawing on stress-coping theory and organizational change.

Staff perceived that, during centralization, sites were devalued as the sites lost surgical activity, skills and experienced teams. Staff members believed that there were long-term implications for this loss, such as in retaining high-calibre staff, attracting trainees and maintaining autonomy. Emotional repercussions for staff included perceived loss of status and motivation. To mitigate these losses, leaders in the centralization process put in place some instrumental measures, such as joint contracting, surgical skill development opportunities and trainee rotation. However, these measures were undermined by patchy implementation and negative impacts on some individuals (e.g. increased workload or travel time). Relatively little emotional support was perceived to be offered. Leaders sometimes characterized adverse emotional reactions to the centralization as resistance, to be overcome through persuasion and appeals to the success of the new system.

Large-scale reorganizations are likely to provoke a high degree of emotion and perceptions of loss. Resources to foster coping and resilience should be made available to all organizations within the system as they go through major change.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of health services research & policy
Early online date26 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2022

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Manchester Cancer Research Centre


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