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Evidence-Based Quality Improvement: The State Of The Science
Article in Health Affairs · January 2005
DOI: 10.1377/hlthaff.24.1.138 · Source: PubMed
2 authors:
Kaveh Shojania
Jeremy Grimshaw
University of Toronto
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
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Evidence-Based Quality
Improvement: The State Of The
Quality improvement strategies, just like medical interventions, need
to rest on a strong evidence base.
by Kaveh G. Shojania and Jeremy M. Grimshaw
ABSTRACT: Routine practice fails to incorporate research evidence in a timely and reliable
fashion. Many quality improvement (QI) efforts aim to close these gaps between clinical research and practice. However, in sharp contrast to the paradigm of evidence-based medicine, these efforts often proceed on the basis of intuition and anecdotal accounts of successful strategies for changing provider behavior or achieving organizational change. We
review problems with current approaches to QI research and outline the steps required to
make QI efforts based as much on evidence as the practices they seek to implement.
o n s i d e r t h e f o l l o w i n g s c e na r i o : A patient comes to see a physician. The patient obviously suffers from a serious chronic illness. Various
diagnostic tests show gross abnormalities. Some sort of treatment is necessary. The physician consults several colleagues, one of whom reports success in the
treatment of a patient with a similar chronic illness using oval red capsules with
the number “250” stamped on them. The physician rummages through the clinic’s
medication room and finds some red pills, although they are square tablets with
the number “100” stamped on them. He instructs the patient to take this medication once daily and report back to him. At the next visit, the patient reports most
of the same symptoms, except that mornings tend to be better than they used to.
A little disappointed at this equivocal improvement, the doctor nonetheless
publishes his results, as he knows there are other clinicians out there with sick patients and they may benefit from knowing that “red pills improve morning symptoms in patients with chronic illnesses,” as his article title reads. Moreover, it may
not matter if they come in tablet or capsule form.
The article receives considerable attention. Many decide that the problem of
sick patients is so urgent that there is no time to conduct further studies:
Kaveh Shojania (kshojania@ohri.ca) is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa (Ontario)
and a scientist in the Clinical Epidemiology Program at the Ottawa Health Research Institute (OHRI). Jeremy
Grimshaw is director of the OHRI Clinical Epidemiology Program, director of the Centre for Best Practice in the
Institute of Population Health, and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Ottawa.
DOI 10.1377/hlthaff.24.1.138 ©2005 Project HOPE–The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.
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Chronically ill patients should receive red pills as soon as possible. Others resist
this approach as potentially squandering precious resources and therefore call for
more research on the benefit of red pills in sick patients. Several randomized controlled trials (RCTs) report negative results, prompting some researchers to reconsider the issue of pill shape, while others try pills of different colors.
Enough studies appear in the literature to warrant review articles and commentaries. Some conclude that the available literature shows no consistent benefit for pills of any type. They wonder what makes patients so difficult to cure—
perhaps they don’t want to change? Other more optimistic researchers point out
that although there are no “magic bullets,” a number of pills show promise. For
now, what seems most important is not the color or shape of the pills used but
rather their number, as trials administering at least two types of pills consistently
report greater benefits than the ones in which patients received only a single type.
Replace “patients” with “quality problems,” and the above scenario captures
the state of the science for promoting the translation of evidence from clinical research into practice. From the perspectives of clinical medicine and the research
enterprise, we regard it as absurd to proceed directly from a patient’s poorly understood complaints to reaching for a bottle of pills simply because they are handy
and resemble ones recommended anecdotally by a colleague. The decision to administer these pills without any understanding of their active ingredients or their
mode of action would be completely unsupportable. Yet comparably unsupportable activities occur routinely in quality improvement (QI)research.
Quality problems are widespread and often glaring, but as in the above scenario, reasons for these problems remain unclear.1 Do providers not know the latest literature, or know but disagree with it? Do they agree with the literature, but
inadequate support systems frustrate their efforts to comply with recommendations based on the literature? Perhaps financial incentives are misaligned?
Remedies for quality problems, like their medicinal counterparts, come in a variety of colors and shapes—critical pathways, disease management, report cards,
and local opinion leaders to champion guidelines, to name a few—all with active
ingredients as poorly defined as those in the pills in the above scenario. And just as
in that scenario, evaluations of these remedies sometimes report beneficial results,
but no single approach produces these results consistently. Instead of exploring
deeper reasons for these failures (what key ingredients do red pills contain?), the
field has simply moved on to the next superficial variable (maybe pill shape plays a
crucial role?). In this paper we briefly summarize the evolution of approaches to
implementing evidence in practice, review the results thus far for particular implementation strategies, and outline a plan for future advances.
Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is the explicit use of the best available evidence to inform decisions about the care of individual patients.2 Under this paradigm, hypotheses about clinical care undergo rigorous evaluation instead of
having their effectiveness presumed on the basis of anecdotal experience or patho-
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physiological arguments. QI research seeks to implement in routine practice the
processes and outcomes of care established by the best available evidence. Unfortunately, these efforts have often proceeded without insistence on the same level
of rigor required to establish these QI targets as worthy of implementation. After
multiple rigorously designed and conducted clinical trials establish the benefit of
some process of care, implementation efforts typically proceed on the basis of intuition, anecdotal stories of success, or studies that exhibit little of the methodological sophistication seen in the research that established the intervention’s
benefit. Strategies for implementing EBM require an evidence base of their own.3
Evolution Of QI And Implementation Research
Efforts to implement EBM in routine practice have evolved through four overlapping phases, each characterized by its own optimistic version of “If you build it,
they will come.”4
n Passive diffusion (“If you publish it, they will come”). In this earliest and
particularly optimistic phase, it was assumed that clinicians would naturally act
upon new clinical research as it appeared. The only acknowledged impediment to
the flow of evidence from the pages of medical journals to the minds of practitioners
was the sheer volume of information and variation in its quality. Advocates of evidence-based medicine promoted the adoption of systematic reading habits and the
acquisition of basic skills in critiquing research articles.
n Guidelines and systematic reviews (“If you read it for them, they will
come”). In this second phase, it was realized that even with more judicious reading
habits and critical skills honed in journal clubs, a variety of factors prevented clinicians from acquiring evidence in a reliable and timely fashion. Systematic reviews of
the evidence and clinical practice guidelines would therefore identify and synthesize studies addressing important clinical decisions, accompanied by graded recommendations for practitioners. Why practice guidelines generally failed to change
practice likely involved a combination of continued reliance on passive diffusion and
other factors that have received only limited study, including disagreement with the
content of guidelines (which show wide variations in methodological quality and
quickly become out of date), personal characteristics of providers (for example, resistance to perceived infringements on physician autonomy), and logistic or financial barriers to implementation.5
n Industrial-style quality improvement (“If you TQM/CQI it, they will
come”). This third stage introduced more active approaches to quality improvement, best represented by the “plan-do-study-act” cycles of total quality management (TQM) and continuous quality improvement (CQI). In many ways, TQM and
CQI are not so much specific interventions as they are general approaches to improving quality. In fact, heterogeneity in what counts as TQM or CQI may explain
the disappointing results reported by reviews of their impact in health care.6
Some may claim that the benefits of TQM, CQI, and other general approaches
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to quality improvement (such as “Six Sigma”) have been well established in other
industries and that the disappointing results in health care reflect inadequate
commitments to their principles or suboptimal implementation of their methods.
Although there may be some truth to this, it is also important to note that QI programs in other industries have seldom undergone the level of scrutiny to which
health care routinely subjects new aspects of care and efforts to implement them.
In fact, what counts as “well established” in other industries often consists of case
reports or observational studies that in health care would be regarded as hypothesis-generating research, not confirmatory evidence.
n Systems reengineering (“If you completely rebuild it, they will come”).
This fourth and present stage contrasts with the incremental cycles of TQM and
CQI (although these are still commonly encountered) by seeking meaningful quality
improvement through radical redesign of existing systems of care. Redesign efforts
attempt to capture the optimal means of accomplishing key goals, instead of relying
on Rube Goldberg–like protocols that reflect myriad, often contradictory historical
forces and incentives for change.7 Reengineering efforts often involve a major component of information technology (IT) as the means of achieving the more optimal,
streamlined delivery system. Evaluations of IT already show the familiar pattern of
prominent successes accompanied by equally prominent failures.8 Instead of simply
moving onto the next new paradigm, it is worth considering what deficiencies have
existed in the literature and how these might be corrected.
n Barriers to QI interventions. In each of the above phases, QI initiatives have
typically proceeded on the basis of presumptions about practitioners’ needs and untested assumptions about effective means for addressing them, in precise opposition
to the paradigm of evidence-based medicine. During the past thirty years, a number
of groups have amassed an evidence base for implementation research.9 Only in the
past decade, however, have researchers focused on identifying barriers that prevent
evidence-based care (Exhibit 1), and designed QI strategies to address them.10
The terms “knowledge translation” and “implementation research” also appear
in the literature, capturing the notion that although a given practice may be supported by evidence, the best way to implement that practice requires a research
base of its own. While slightly more technical, these terms are roughly interchangeable with each other and with QI research.
Designs For Evaluating QI Research
Systematic reviews of QI strategies have consistently identified weak designs in
the primary studies evaluating QI strategies. For example, a review of CQI studies
published in major U.S. medical journals reported that 75 percent of them relied
on simple before-after designs, often at single institutions at single sites, which
makes it difficult to attribute any observed benefits to the CQI interventions.11
n Expediency versus rigor. Given the perceived urgency for QI efforts, some
have resisted calls to adopt evaluative designs comparable in rigor to those typically
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Examples Of Barriers To Translating Evidence Into Practice
Type of barrier
Financial disincentives
Cost and reimbursement issues related to
Inappropriate skill mix, lack of facilities or equipment administering birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine (HBV)
dose in the hospital
Staffing of ICUs by intensivists widely called for;
meeting this goal is highly unlikely given current
projections of the intensivist workforce
Peer group
Practice patterns determined by local standards and Multiple examples of wide variations in rates of
surgery or diagnostic tests from one geographical
beliefs rather than evidence or formal consensus
area to another
Attitudes and beliefs
Physicians’ knowledge of the crucial role for aspirin in
treating acute myocardial infarction and published
recommendations from clinical experts lagging
behind or even contradicting existing evidence from
randomized trials
Concerns that guidelines do not reflect real-world
practice, resistance to “cookbook medicine”
Patient factors
Requests for antibiotics as treatment for viral upper
Patients’ requests for specific diagnostic tests or
respiratory tract infections
treatments despite their not being recommended
Patients’ informed choices not to pursue care that is Choice of some parents not to use newer vaccines for
their children (such as HBV beginning at birth)
SOURCE: Authors’ analysis based on R. Grol and M. Wensing, “What Drives Change? Barriers to and Incentives for Achieving
Evidence-based Practice,” Medical Journal of Australia 180, no. 6, Supp. 1 (2004): S57–S60.
NOTES: Failures of routine practice to replicate recommended care have frequently been ascribed to knowledge (or lack
thereof) and recalcitrance on the part of physicians. In fact, barriers to adoption of evidence-based care include structural
issues, peer-group effects, and patient factors. ICU is intensive care unit.
found in clinical research, especially given the additional challenges of studying
change in complex organizations. Ironically, a better case for permitting welldesigned observational studies to provide adequate evidence for major policy decisions can be made for clinical research than for quality improvement. RCTs offer
protection from the effects of unknown predictors of treatment outcome by balancing between their prevalence in control and experimental groups. In clinical research, we usually understand many of these predictors and can therefore adjust for
imbalances in observational studies. By contrast, we generally have very limited understanding of the factors that determine the success of a QI intervention, making
randomized designs (not to mention blinding, concealment of allocation, and other
often overlooked aspects of trial design) even more important if one wants to avoid
wasting resources on ineffective interventions.
n The “before-after” approach. When resources or time constraints prevent an
RCT, institutions should strongly consider trial designs that avoid the problems of a
simple “before-after” design.12 In this approach, if Hospital A decides to implement a
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particular QI program, it might look at outcomes of interest in the year before and
the year after implementation to determine whether or not any significant change
occurred. Such studies suffer from two major drawbacks. First, background factors
can produce large fluctuations in processes or outcomes of interest irrespective of
QI interventions. Second, during any given period, multiple changes typically occur
within a health care system or its socioeconomic environment. One or more of these
other changes might have produced the desired improvements.
n Time-series design. One way to minimize these possibilities is to look at multiple time periods (for example, monthly outcomes over at least one year before and
after the intervention). This conveys the extent of background variation and also indicates the extent to which any trend toward improvement may have been present
prior to the intervention. Various mathematical tools allow one to formally test
what is often readily apparent visually—namely, that a marked change did (or did
not) occur at the time of the intervention. One example of this so-called interrupted
time-series design, which clearly provided more accurate information than a simple
before-after study would have done, is an evaluation in the United Kingdom of the
impact of guidelines mailed to providers when they requested radiographic studies.
During a four-year period at the two hospitals involved in the intervention, a simple
before-after study would have suggested significant reductions in referrals for
eleven of the eighteen procedures evaluated, whereas the time-series analysis indicated no benefit attributable to the intervention.13
n Controlled before-after design. When multiple time points before and after
an intervention are not feasible, a reasonable alternative to a time-series analysis at
Hospital A is a controlled before-after study, in which the same before-after measurements occur in one or more hospitals that did not implement the change of interest but are otherwise comparable with Hospital A.
A study of the impact of “critical pathways” on surgical length-of-stay provides
a striking example of the benefit of a controlled before-after design.14 A major
Boston teaching hospital implemented critical pathways for major surgical procedures and observed significant decreases in length-of-stay, from 3 percent to 9 percent (p < .01 for each before-after comparison). However, when lengths-of-stay for
the same procedures were analyzed in other Boston hospitals, the same or greater
decreases were found. This comparison allowed investigators to recognize that reductions in surgical length-of-stay at their own hospital likely reflected secular
changes, presumably in response to general economic pressures to shorten hospital stays. Reliance on a simple before-after design would have resulted in the mistaken attribution of these changes to the pathways.
Evidence Of The Effectiveness Of Specific QI Strategies
Regardless of trial design, individual evaluations of QI strategies will always
provide less complete pictures than systematic reviews. By gathering evidence
from multiple clinical and organizational settings, systematic reviews provide
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decisionmakers with more useful assessments of the totality of evidence supporting a given approach to improving quality than individual studies can.15 The increasingly recognized importance of systematic reviews in informing policy decisions has led some to distinguish “health technology assessments” from
systematic reviews, with the former reflecting a balance between the ideals of scientific rigor and the needs of policymakers to receive evidence syntheses in short
timelines.16 Here we review findings from several major systematic reviews and
health technology assessments of QI strategies.
n Use of multifaceted interventions. The first major review of the evidence
supporting a variety of QI strategies found no “magic bullets” for addressing quality
problems.17 It did, however, identify trends toward modest benefits for many interventions, especially those using multiple strategies for promoting change (“multifaceted” interventions). In other words, instead of using provider education or audit
and feedback, effective interventions more often combined elements from two or
more categories. Effective interventions were also more likely to involve active than
passive strategies (for example, simply mailing guidelines to providers).
n Targeting provider behavior. A comparably broad review five years later
found that the literature now included forty-one systematic reviews of implementation strategies targeting provider behavior.18 This “overview of overviews” largely
echoed the previous findings: No interventions consistently produced large improvements, and the ones producing modest improvements tended to be active and
multifaceted. More recently, a synthesis of more than 200 evaluations of strategies
for promoting implementation of guidelines again showed modest but consistent
evidence of improvements in care.19 Across all studies, intervention groups exhibited a median absolute improvement of approximately 10 percent in terms of adherence to target processes of care. As in previous reviews, however, most implementation strategies showed wide variations in effect size. For instance, RCTs of
interventions involving provider reminders reported changes in adherence to guidelines ranging from a 34 percent improvement to a 1 percent decline. As in the scenario at the outset, red pills seemed to work remarkably well in some studies while
producing no effect in others.
Two interesting findings emerged from this review: Multifaceted interventions
had median effect sizes that were not significantly greater than single-faceted
ones; and interventions involving passive dissemination such as educational materials produced modest but consistently positive improvements. These findings
represent “good news–bad news” results. On the one hand, the review did not bear
out two central tenets of the field—that significant improvement requires multifaceted interventions and that passive strategies offer little chance of success. On
the other hand, if single-faceted interventions and passive dissemination strategies provide modest benefits, it certainly makes things easier for organizations
trying to implement particular guidelines or other changes in practice.
Exhibit 2 lists common types of QI strategies evaluated in the above reviews
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Common Quality Improvement Strategies
Strategy definition and examples
Provider education—Examples:
Conferences or printed educational materials detailing current Generally ineffective if judged on the basis
of improving patient outcomes
recommendations for management of a particular condition
If judged in terms of increasing provider
Educational outreach visits to providers’ offices, usually
knowledge, can be effective
targeting more specific aspects of care, such as appropriate
medication choices for a target condition
Provider reminder systems and decision support (systems for
prompting health professionals to recall information relevant to
a specific patient or clinical encounter; when accompanied by a
recommendation, such systems are classified as clinical
decision support)—Examples:
Sheet on front of chart alerting provider to date of the
patient’s most recent mammogram and its result
Computer-generated suggestion to intensify diabetes
medications based on most recent HbA1c values
Reminders often effective if well integrated
with workflow
Decision support sometimes effective, but
less so for the more complex situations in
which it would be most desirable
Small to modest (at best) benefits for
Audit and feedback (summary of clinical performance for an
various forms of audit and feedback (such
individual provider or clinic, transmitted back to the provider)—
as report cards, benchmarking)
Variations in format may explain some of
Reports to providers or provider groups summarizing
the observed variations in effectiveness, in
percentages of their eligible patients who have achieved a
target outcome (cholesterol below a certain value) or received addition to providers’ attitudes toward the
accuracy or credibility of the reports
a target process of care (counseling about smoking
cessation), accompanied by recommended targets
Patient education—Examples:
Individual or group sessions with nurse educator for patients
with diabetes
Medication education from a pharmacist for patients with
heart failure
Organizational change—Example:
Changes in the structure or organization of the health care
team or setting designed to improve processes or outcomes
of care
Financial incentives, regulation, and policy—Examples:
Financial bonuses for achieving target level of compliance
with targeted processes of care
Change from fee-for-service to salaried or capitated
reimbursement systems
Modest to large effects for some conditions
and patient populations
Mostly positive results for case management
and disease management programs
Mixed results for total quality management
and continuous quality improvement
Some evidence for achieving target goals,
but also for concerning decreases in
access and conflicts of interest in
physician-patient relationships
SOURCE: Categories and definitions based on K.G. Shojania et al., Closing the Quality Gap: A Critical Analysis of Quality
Improvement Strategies, Volume 1—Series Overview and Methodology; see Note 20 in text.
and comments on their effectiveness. However, the major conclusion to draw from
the literature is that general conclusions about what works are still tentative.
n Detailed evidence for two chronic illnesses: diabetes and hypertension.
One explanation for the variation in effectiveness of specific QI strategies across different studies may be the nature of the QI target. To address this issue, the Agency
for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recently funded a series of systematic
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reviews of QI strategies and requested that the first two reviews focus on diabetes
and hypertension. The reviews sought to identify interventions successful in improving patient outcomes through organizational changes or modifications to provider behavior, such as those listed in Exhibit 2.20 Interventions directed at patients
were included as long as they also involved at least some strategy for changing provider behavior or achieving organizational change.
The diabetes review identified sixty-six trials evaluating an intervention that
targeted providers or organizations and reported improvements in processes or
outcomes of care. The hypertension review included eighty-two trials.21 Exhibit 3
compares the effectiveness of specific QI strategies across the two target conditions. Two main findings emerge from this exhibit. First, a given strategy may
work for diabetes but not for hypertension, which emphasizes that the effectiveness of a particular approach to quality improvement depends at least partly on
the clinical context and almost certainly on other contextual factors (such as the
beliefs and attitudes of providers and organizational features) that have received
little study. Second, for diabetes, everything seems to work. This observation
likely reflects two factors: (1) publication bias, such that positive studies have a
Impacts Of Selected Quality Improvement (QI) Strategies For Two Chronic Illnesses:
Diabetes And Hypertension
Type of QI strategy
Diabetes (significant
improvement in
glycemic control)
Hypertension (significant
improvement in systolic or
diastolic blood pressure)
Provider education
Yes (9 studies)
No for SBP (10 studies)
No for DBP (11 studies)
Provider reminders
Yes (8 studies)
No for SBP (6 studies)
No for DBP (6 studies)
Audit and feedback
Yes (5 studies)
Yes for SBP (3 studies)
No for DBP (3 studies)
Patient education
Yes (18 studies)
Yes for SBP (18 studies)
No for DBP (21 studies)
Disease or case management
Yes (12 studies)
Yes for SBP (4 studies)
No for DBP (7 studies)
Changes to team or staffing
Yes (15 studies)
Yes for SBP (19 studies)
No for DBP (22 studies)
Multifacted interventions better
than single interventions?
Yes (33 multifaceted studies, 6
single-faceted studies)
Insufficient data to compare (42
multifaceted studies, only 1
SOURCES: Authors’ analysis based on K.G. Shojania et al., Closing the Quality Gap: A Critical Analysis of Quality Improvement
Strategies, Volume 2—Diabetes Mellitus Care; and J.M. Walsh et al., Closing the Quality Gap: A Critical Analysis of Quality
Improvement Strategies, Volume 3—Hypertension Care; see Note 21 in text.
NOTE: This exhibit compares findings from the thirty-nine trials in the diabetes review that reported impacts on glycemic
control with the thirty-three trials in the hypertension review that reported average changes in blood pressure.
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“Better understanding of the problem being addressed is an
essential first step for any QI effort.”
much larger chance of being published (an explanation borne out in the detailed
analysis of the diabetes review); and (2) the benefit of any given QI strategy is confounded by the presence of multiple co-interventions.
To address these issues, a more sophisticated regression analysis adjusted for
variations in study quality (for example, study size and design) and took into account the presence of multiple co-interventions in the vast majority of studies. In
this analysis, only three QI strategies emerged as significantly more beneficial
than other interventions, and one of these, disease or case management, showed a
similar result in the hypertension review. Since other reviews of the disease management literature have reported generally positive results, we discuss this strategy in more detail below.22
n Disease or case management. In our review, we defined disease management as
any intervention involving coordination of diagnosis, treatment, or other aspects of
ongoing management by a person or multidisciplinary team in collaboration with or
supplementary to the primary care provider. Despite efforts to make our definition
consistent with others in the literature, we found a number of disagreements with
respect to classifying specific studies. For instance, one review of the “chronic care
model” highlighted a study of primary care disease management for diabetes as exemplary.23 By contrast, a comprehensive systematic review of disease management
across a variety of conditions did not include this study, nor did we in our review.
Similarly, we regarded a randomized trial published in a prominent journal as an excellent example of disease management, whereas the authors of a recent randomized
trial evaluating disease management for diabetes care did not mention this article in
their discussion of the literature.
These discrepancies almost certainly reflect the nebulous and varied definitions for disease management, rather than deficient search strategies or heterogeneous inclusion criteria. In fact, we contacted the authors of the more recent trial
to confirm that they knew of the study in question and simply did not regard it as
disease management, instead of their having overlooked it. Consistent with our
experience, authors of systematic reviews have consistently emphasized the need
for better definitions of disease management.
Therefore, it seems that there is a pill called “disease management” that produces promising results, but its active ingredients remain unclear as do key features of the mode of delivery. Unless better clarity emerges, disease management
may become a fad that disappears in the face of well-designed negative trials.24 Or,
worse, it will simply be replaced when a newer, more appealing, but equally
poorly understood pill appears on the market.
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Where To Go From Here?
The existing QI literature differs from the rest of biomedical research, especially that informed by the paradigm of EBM, in two major respects. First, evaluations of specific interventions often fail to meet basic standards for the conduct
and reporting of research. Second, and more fundamentally, the choices of particular interventions lack compelling theories predicting their success or informing
specific features of their development. Methodological shortcomings in the QI research literature include basic problems with the design and analysis of the interventions and poor reporting of the results. For instance, in our review of interventions to improve diabetes care, roughly one-third of studies omitted key data
elements such as pre-intervention values for the outcome of interest and measures
of variation for these outcomes. Some studies did not even report the number of
patients or providers participating in the study. Even with better-designed and
-reported studies, however, progress in QI research will require better understanding of the factors driving provider and organizational change. We need empirically derived models to inform the decision to select specific implementation
strategies, based on clinical features of the quality target, organizational or social
context, and relevant attitudes and beliefs of providers and patients.
Until such theories emerge, better understanding of the problem being addressed is an essential first step. Instead of presuming that provider behavior
reflects lack of knowledge, inadequate incentives, or any of the barriers listed in
Exhibit 1, those interested in change need to determine which factors play the predominant role for the given QI target. If providers fail to perform some basic aspect
of preventive care because they forget, amid multiple competing tasks, and not because they do not know of its importance, then a reminder system has a far greater
chance of success than an educational strategy, no matter how well designed.
Once an intervention has been developed, the next step should be a pilot study
to confirm that it works as intended—the QI equivalent of Phase I clinical studies.
Too often, interventions are immediately evaluated in a clinical trial without prior
data regarding basic processes expected to mediate the target improvements.25
How frequently do providers read the audit and feedback reports sent to them? Do
patients understand the self-management materials provided to them? A recent
well-designed evaluation of a disease management intervention for diabetics reported no improvements in glycemic control but accompanied this null result
with key data, such as the low success rate for nurses trying to contact patients in
the intervention group.26 Not reporting such information, which is currently the
norm in the literature, would be like conducting a drug trial in which it is not reported if the patients actually took the medication.
Concluding Remarks
We constructed the analogy of the pills at the outset to emphasize the degree to
which QI research lags behind the rest of biomedical research and the EBM para-
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digm. Even when QI strategies undergo rigorous evaluation, the trials might as
well involve “red capsules with the number 250 stamped on them,” as the essential
ingredients that account for their impact remain unclear and the appropriate instructions for the bottle unknown.
The pill metaphor also pertains to another important feature of QI research: the
quest for a wonder drug. Although the public awaits “cures” for various diseases,
the medical community has long recognized that progress occurs through incremental gains, with new therapies typically providing modest reductions (on the
order of 10–20 percent) in the relative risk of adverse outcomes. In the quality
arena, however, even the medical community expects miracle cures, and one often
finds apothecaries peddling pills that promise cures for all that ails us—elimination of medication errors, universal adherence to key process measures, and dramatically improved patient outcomes. The wonder pill most frequently encountered currently is in fact the “wonder clinical information system,” despite the
often glaring discrepancy between the promise of systems in showrooms and the
way they perform in the real world.27
s q i r e s e a r c h b e c o m e s m o r e r i g o r o u s , with greater attention to
the understanding of why particular interventions work and the factors
that augment or interfere with their success in different settings, we believe that a number of strategies will prove effective at promoting evidence-based
care. As in the rest of health care, however, these effects will generally be modest.
Unless we adjust our expectations, the continued quest for dramatic cures will result in missed opportunities to make consistent, incremental improvements in
Jeremy Grimshaw holds a Canada Research Chair in Health Knowledge Transfer and Uptake.
E.A. McGlynn et al., “The Quality of Health Care Delivered to Adults in the United States,” New England
Journal of Medicine 348, no. 26 (2003): 2635–2645.
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available on request from the author; send e-mail to kshojania@ohri.ca.
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