Toward an understanding of the roles and actions of health professional associations in policymaking

Student: Sarah Boesveld, PhD Candidate, Health Policy PhD Program, McMaster University


Sarah Boesveld is a registered nurse with expertise in health systems and policy. She obtained her Master of Science in Health Systems and Public Policy from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) in 2009 and is currently a doctoral student at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) in the interdisciplinary Health Policy program, political studies stream. Sarah also completed the Ontario Training Centre in Health Services and Policy Research diploma program, which included an internship at the Health Human Resources Strategy Division at the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Previous research that Sarah has been involved in examined the development of nurse practitioner-led clinics in Ontario, the introduction of physician assistants to Ontario, and patient and public engagement in health technology assessment. These projects contribute to the overarching theme of her research, which is to explore how individuals and groups outside of government influence health policymaking.

Overview of Doctoral Thesis:

Her current research interests are focused on groups in the health workforce. Specifically, Sarah’s doctoral work uses qualitative methods to study the policy involvement of health professional associations. Health professional associations are mandated to advance the profession, for instance by advocating for members to be able to practice to their full scope. Increasingly these groups appear to take action on more public-oriented policy issues; for instance, a number of health professional associations in Ontario have recently collaborated on medical tourism. Yet despite their importance in health policymaking processes, little attention has been paid to conceptualizing health professional associations as interest groups, and in particular to exploring what motivates their policy actions.

Sarah drew on political science theoretical approaches to studying interest groups to develop an organizing schematic. This schematic guided a review of published articles focused on the policy involvement of health professional associations. A striking finding from the review is that none of the included articles discussed the underlying motivations of the health professional associations (i.e., the extent to which groups were driven by self-interest or other interests).

To begin to fill this gap, Sarah interviewed twelve senior staff at the policy and executive levels of professional associations in Ontario representing six different health professions (two participants per association). The purpose of these interviews was to explore how the policy leaders of professional associations view their organizations’ roles around policy issues, and what motivates their organizations’ involvement. Preliminary analysis suggests that health professional associations in Ontario have policy interests that span narrow professional self-interests, to broader societal interests. These interests are underpinned by different ideas – organizational mission statements, professional values, professional culture and history – that participants believe shape how the members and the Boards of their respective associations think policy involvement.

Sarah is currently wrapping up the analysis of interview data. The findings of her work add to our understanding of health professional associations as a type of interest group. A broader contribution of her work is to highlight the usefulness of political science ideational theory in explaining what motivates the policy involvement of groups. 

For more information connect with Sarah through CHHRN-ED

Health Canadacihr logo1This initiative has been generously funded by grants from Health Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the funders.