Background: Clinical practice guidelines are developed to assist in patient care. Physicians may assume that following such guidelines means practicing evidence-based medicine. However, the quality of supporting literature can vary greatly.
Methods: We analyzed the strength of recommendation and overall quality of evidence behind 41 Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) guidelines released between January 1994 and May 2010. Individual recommendations were classified based on their strength of recommendation (levels A through C) and quality of evidence (levels I through III). Guidelines not following this format were excluded from further analysis. Evolution of IDSA guidelines was assessed by comparing 5 recently updated guidelines with their earlier versions.
Results: In the 41 analyzed guidelines, 4218 individual recommendations were found and tabulated. Fourteen percent of the recommendations were classified as level I, 31% as level II, and 55% as level III evidence. Among class A recommendations (good evidence for support), 23% were level I (≥1 randomized controlled trial) and 37% were based on expert opinion only (level III). Updated guidelines expanded the absolute number of individual recommendations substantially. However, few were due to a sizable increase in level I evidence; most additional recommendations had level II and III evidence.
Conclusions: More than half of the current recommendations of the IDSA are based on level III evidence only. Until more data from well-designed controlled clinical trials become available, physicians should remain cautious when using current guidelines as the sole source guiding patient care decisions.