Take a quick glance through the medical literature, and chances are good that you’ll find a study citing low or variable adherence to clinical guidelines.
One recent paper in Clinical Pediatrics, for example, chronicled low adherence to the 2011 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute lipid screening guidelines in primary-care settings.1 Another cautioned providers to “mind the (implementation) gap” in venous thromboembolism prevention guidelines for medical inpatients.2 A third found that lower adherence to guidelines issued by the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association for acute coronary syndrome patients was significantly associated with higher bleeding and mortality rates.3
Both clinical trials and real-world studies have demonstrated that when guidelines are applied, patients do better, says William Lewis, MD, professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Heart & Vascular Center at MetroHealth in Cleveland. So why aren’t they followed more consistently?
Experts in both HM and other disciplines cite multiple obstacles. Lack of evidence, conflicting evidence, or lack of awareness about evidence can all conspire against the main goal of helping providers deliver consistent high-value care, says Christopher Moriates, MD, assistant clinical professor in the Division of Hospital Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“In our day-to-day lives as hospitalists, for the vast majority probably of what we do there’s no clear guideline or there’s a guideline that doesn’t necessarily apply to the patient standing in front of me,” he says.
Even when a guideline is clear and relevant, other doctors say inadequate dissemination and implementation can still derail quality improvement efforts.
“A lot of what we do as physicians is what we learned in residency, and to incorporate the new data is difficult,” says Leonard Feldman, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist and associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Dr. Feldman believes many doctors have yet to integrate recently revised hypertension and cholesterol guidelines into their practice, for example. Some guidelines have proven more complex or controversial, limiting their adoption.
“I know I struggle to keep up with all of the guidelines, and I’m in a big academic center where people are talking about them all the time, and I’m working with residents who are talking about them all the time,” Dr. Feldman says.
Despite the remaining gaps, however, many researchers agree that momentum has built steadily over the past two decades toward a more systematic approach to creating solid evidence-based guidelines and integrating them into real-world decision making.
Emphasis on Evidence and Transparency
The term “evidence-based medicine” was coined in 1990 by Gordon Guyatt, MD, MSc, FRCPC, distinguished professor of medicine and clinical epidemiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s played an active role in formulating guidelines for multiple organizations. The guideline-writing process, Dr. Guyatt says, once consisted of little more than self-selected clinicians sitting around a table.
“It used to be that a bunch of experts got together and decided and made the recommendations with very little in the way of a systematic process and certainly not evidence based,” he says.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center was among the pioneers pushing for a more systematic approach; the hospital began working on its own guidelines in 1995 and published the first of many the following year.
“We started evidence-based guidelines when the docs were still saying, ‘This is cookbook medicine. I don’t know if I want to do this or not,’” says Wendy Gerhardt, MSN, director of evidence-based decision making in the James M. Anderson Center for Health Systems Excellence at Cincinnati Children’s.