How to develop cost-conscious guidelines

Health Technol Assess. 2001;5(16):1-69. doi: 10.3310/hta5160.


Background: Clinical guidelines, defined as 'systematically developed statements to assist both practitioner and patient decisions in specific circumstances', have become an increasingly familiar part of clinical care. Guidelines are viewed as useful tools for making care more consistent and efficient and for closing the gap between what clinicians do and what scientific evidence supports. Interest in clinical guidelines is international and has its origin in issues faced by most healthcare systems: rising healthcare costs; variations in service delivery with the presumption that at least some of this variation stems from inappropriate care; the intrinsic desire of healthcare professionals to offer, and patients to receive, the best care possible. Within the UK, there is ongoing interest in the development of guidelines and a fast-developing clinical-effectiveness agenda within which guidelines figure prominently. Over the last decade, the methods of developing guidelines have steadily improved, moving from solely consensus methods to methods that take explicit account of relevant evidence. However, UK guidelines have tended to focus on issues of effectiveness and have not explicitly considered broader issues, particularly cost. This report describes the methods developed to handle benefit, harm and cost concepts in clinical guidelines. It reports a series of case studies, each describing the development of a clinical guideline; each case study illustrates different issues in incorporating these different types of evidence.

Health economics and clinical guidelines: There has been no widely accepted successful way of incorporating economic considerations into guidelines. Unlike other areas of guideline development, there is little practical or theoretical experience to direct the incorporation of cost issues within clinical guidelines. However, the reasons for considering costs are clearly stated: "health interventions are not free, people are not infinitely rich, and the budgets of [health care] programmes are limited. For every dollar's worth of health care that is consumed, a dollar will be paid. While these payments can be laundered, disguised or hidden, they will not go away" (Eddy DM. A manual for assessing health practices and designing practice policies: the explicit approach. Philadelphia: American College of Physicians; 1992). Such opportunity costs are a universal phenomenon. In the USA it has been recommended that every set of clinical guidelines should include information on the cost implications of the alternative preventive, diagnostic, and management strategies for each clinical situation. The stated rationale was that this information would help potential users to evaluate better the potential consequences of different practices. However, it was acknowledged that "the reality is that this recommendation poses major methodological and practical challenges" (Institute of Medicine. Guidelines for clinical practice: from development to use. Washington: National Academy Press; 1992).

Methods of developing clinical guidelines: A guideline development process summarises the technical information about the value of treatments in a manner that makes them accessible and ready for use in clinical practice, alongside information on contextual issues. The requirement is that the presentation of costs and benefits of treatments is methodologically sound, robust and accessible. This report includes a summary of the current best practice in evidence-based guideline development, including recent methodological advances. The manner in which cost and cost-effectiveness concepts have been successfully incorporated into the guideline process is introduced.

Guideline development case studies: The 'cost-effectiveness' sections of 11 guidelines are reported to illustrate both the range of methods used and the nature of the recommendations reached by the guideline development groups when considering the profile of consequences of treatments including costs. These guidelines are broadly grouped as: (1) those using qualitative evidence summary methods; (2) those using quantitative evidence summary methods and addressing relatively narrow clinical questions; (3) those using quantitative evidence summary methods and addressing a broad clinical area; (4) a guideline based upon a decision analysis model.

Conclusions: The focus of this project was to explore the methods of incorporating cost issues within clinical guidelines. However, the process of reviewing evidence in guideline development groups is becoming increasingly sophisticated, not only in considerations of cost but also in review techniques and group process. At the outset of the project it was unclear how narrowly or broadly the concept of 'cost' could be considered. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arthritis / economics
  • Arthritis / therapy
  • Asthma / economics
  • Asthma / therapy
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / economics
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / therapy
  • Cost Control
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Data Collection
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Decision Support Techniques
  • Dementia / economics
  • Dementia / therapy
  • Depression / economics
  • Depression / therapy
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / economics*
  • Health Care Costs / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Services Research
  • Humans
  • Models, Econometric
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic / standards*
  • Primary Health Care / economics
  • Primary Health Care / standards
  • Research Design
  • Schizophrenia / economics
  • Schizophrenia / therapy
  • United Kingdom