Objective. To survey the quantitative development of quality circles (peer review groups; QC) and their moderators in ambulatory care in Germany, to describe approaches to documentation and evaluation, to establish what type of facilities and support is available and to assess opinions on the future importance of QC.
Design. Cross-sectional survey using a standardized questionnaire and supplementary telephone interviews.
Setting. All 23 German regional Associations of Statutory Health Insurance Physi-cians (ASHIP) were surveyed.
Results. The total number of QC in ambulatory care in Germany increased rapidly from 16 in 1993 to 1633 in June 1996, with about 17% (range 1.0-52.1%) of all practicing physicians (112 158) currently involved. Throughout Germany, 2403 moderators were trained in 168 training courses by the qualifying date. Fol-low-up meetings were held or being planned in 20 ASHIP, with approximately 39% (23-95%) of the moderators participating. Systematic documentation of QC work was undertaken or planned in all 23 ASHIP, and 10 ASHIP carried out comparative evaluation, with at least five others planning to start it. The ASHIP promoted the work of QC by providing organizational (22) or financial (20) support, materials (20) or mediation of resource persons (16). Eleven ASHIP received grants from drug companies. ASHIP rated the future importance of QC as increasing (18) or stable (four), but in no case as decreasing.
Conclusions and recommendations. The quantitative growth of QC in Germany is encouraging, but the extent of support and evaluation appears insufficient. Increased methodological support and facilitation, follow-up meetings on a more regular basis, improved documentation and evaluation of individual QC, and problem-oriented evaluation of their impact on health care are essential for further successful development. Principles, problems and solutions discussed may be relevant for similar QI activities in other countries.
Key words: ambulatory care, Germany, peer review, quality circles, quality improvement