Aims and background: The term 'clinical pathway' is internationally accepted in all settings of healthcare management. The way in which clinical pathways have been developed in the United Kingdom differs from that in the USA. Besides the international differences in the purpose, many alternative names also can be found. These have led to confusion. There is no single, widely accepted definition of a clinical pathway. The aim of the study was to survey the definitions used in describing the concept and to derive key characteristics of clinical pathways.
Method: Using the PubMed, we conducted a review of literature published between January 2000 and December 2003 using the following terms: critical pathway, clinical pathway, integrated care pathway, care pathway and care map. All reports reviewed had to use the concept, as defined by the Medical Subject Headings term, to be considered. To assess all definitions, the concept analysis method was used.
Results: In 82 of the 263 eligible articles, the definition of pathway was given. Totally, we found 84 different definitions. Each definition was rephrased by taking into consideration the following three features inherent to pathways: nouns, characteristics and aims and outcomes. Every feature was further divided into categories.
Conclusions: A clinical pathway is a method for the patient-care management of a well-defined group of patients during a well-defined period of time. A clinical pathway explicitly states the goals and key elements of care based on Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) guidelines, best practice and patient expectations by facilitating the communication, coordinating roles and sequencing the activities of the multidisciplinary care team, patients and their relatives; by documenting, monitoring and evaluating variances; and by providing the necessary resources and outcomes. The aim of a clinical pathway is to improve the quality of care, reduce risks, increase patient satisfaction and increase the efficiency in the use of resources.