Background: Although there is debate about the appropriate place of guidelines in clinical practice, guidelines can be seen as one way of assisting clinicians in decision-making. Given the likely diversity of opinion that any group of people may display when considering a topic, methods are needed for organising subjective judgements. Three principal methods (Delphi, nominal group technique, consensus development conference) exist which share the common objective of synthesising judgements when a state of uncertainty exists.
Objectives: To identify the factors that shape and influence the clinical guidelines that emerge from consensus development methods and to make recommendations about best practice in the use of such methods.
Methods: Five electronic databases were searched: Medline (1966-1996), PsychLIT (1974-1996), Social Science Citation Index (1990-1996), ABI Inform and Sociofile. From the searches and reference lists of articles a total of 177 empirical and review articles were selected for review.
Results: The output from consensus development methods may be affected by: the way the task is set (choice of cues, recognition of contextual cues, the focus of the task, the comprehensiveness of the scenarios); the selection of participants (choice of individuals, degree of homogeneity of the group, their background, their number); the selection and presentation of scientific information (format, extent to which its quality and content is assessed); the way any interaction is structured (number of rating rounds, ensuring equitable participation, physical environment for meetings); and the method of synthesising individual judgements (definition of agreement, rules governing outliers, method of mathematical aggregation).
Conclusions: Although a considerable amount of research has been carried out, many aspects have not been investigated sufficiently. For the time being at least, advice on those aspects has, therefore, to be based on the user's own commonsense and the experience of those who have used or participated in these methods. Even in the long term, some aspects will not be amenable to scientific study. Meanwhile, adherence to best practice will enhance the validity, reliability and impact of the clinical guidelines produced.