Use of critical pathways to improve efficiency: a cautionary tale

Am J Manag Care. 2003 Nov;9(11):758-65.


Background: Critical pathways are healthcare management plans that specify patient goals and the sequence and timing of actions necessary to achieve these goals with optimal efficiency. More than 80% of hospitals in the United States use critical pathways for at least some of their patients. Unfortunately, critical pathway effectiveness in improving clinical efficiency is unclear.

Objectives: To assess whether critical pathways have been successful in reducing patient length of stay (LOS) and resource utilization in our tertiary-care academic medical center.

Study design: A before-and-after observational study using multivariate linear regression analyses.

Methods: We identified all critical pathways initiated in our medical center between 1993 and 1996 in which at least 50 adult patients would be evaluated in the year preceding and succeeding pathway implementation; 13 pathways satisfied these inclusion criteria. Using a before-and-after design, multivariate linear regression was used to evaluate each pathway's effect on average monthly LOS and resource utilization after adjusting for case mix and secular trends.

Results: Three of the 13 pathways were associated with a statistically significant immediate decrease in inpatient LOS: acute myocardial infarction (20.7% decrease; P = .001), cesarean section (14.6% decrease; P = .03), and kidney transplantation (24.5% decrease; P = .003). Only 1 pathway, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA), produced a statistically significant decrease in LOS slope (a decrease of 5.2% per month; P = .001). Two pathways were accompanied by a statistically significant immediate reduction in ancillary resource utilization: kidney transplantation (26.4% decrease; P = .001) and community-acquired pneumonia (21.8% decrease; P = .002). Only the PTCA pathway produced a statistically significant decrease in resource utilization slope during the 12-month follow-up period (a decrease of 8.4% per month; P < .001).

Conclusions: Although some pathways did reduce LOS or resource utilization or both, most pathways reduced neither. Because substantial resources must be expended on pathway development, implementation, and maintenance, future efforts should be placed on further evaluating the effectiveness of critical pathways and understanding the reasons behind their success or failure before additional resources are consumed for this management strategy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Critical Pathways*
  • Disease / classification
  • Efficiency, Organizational*
  • Hospitals, University / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Michigan
  • Utilization Review