Systematic review of the effectiveness of integrated care pathways: what works, for whom, in which circumstances?

Int J Evid Based Healthc. 2009 Jun;7(2):61-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-1609.2009.00127.x.


Aim Integrated care pathways (ICP) are management technologies which formalise multidisciplinary team-working and enable professionals to examine their roles and responsibilities. ICPs are now being implemented across international healthcare arena, but evidence to support their use is equivocal. The aim of this study was to identify the circumstances in which ICPs are effective, for whom and in what contexts. Methods A systematic review of high-quality randomised controlled trials published between 1980 and 2008 (March) evaluating ICP use in child and adult populations in the full range of healthcare settings.

Results: 1 For relatively predictable trajectories of care ICPs can be effective in supporting proactive care management and ensuring that patients receive relevant clinical interventions and/or assessments in a timely manner. This can lead to improvements in service quality and service efficiency without adverse consequences for patients. 2 ICPs are an effective mechanism for promoting adherence to guidelines or treatment protocols thereby reducing variation in practice. 3 ICPs can be effective in improving documentation of treatment goals, documentation of communication with patients, carers and health professionals. 4 ICPs can be effective in improving physician agreement about treatment options. 5 ICPs can be effective in supporting decision-making when they incorporate a decision-aide. 6 The evidence considered in this review indicates that ICPs may be particularly effective in changing professional behaviours in the desired direction, where there is scope for improvement or where roles are new. 7 Even in contexts in which health professionals are already experienced with a particular pathway, ICP use brings additional beneficial effects in directing professional practice in the desired direction. 8 ICPs may be less effective in bringing about service quality and efficiency gains in variable patient trajectories. 9 ICPs may be less effective in bringing about quality improvements in circumstances in which services are already based on best evidence and multidisciplinary working is well established. 10 Depending on their purpose, the benefits of ICPs may be greater for certain patient subgroups than others. 11 We do not know whether the costs of ICP development and implementation are justified by any of their reported benefits. 12 ICPs may need supporting mechanisms to underpin their implementation and ensure their adoption in practice, particularly in circumstances in which ICP use is a significant change in organisational culture. 13 ICP documentation can introduce scope for new kinds of error. Conclusions ICPs are most effective in contexts where patient care trajectories are predictable. Their value in settings in which recovery pathways are more variable is less clear. ICPs are most effective in bringing about behavioural changes where there are identified deficiencies in services; their value in contexts where inter-professional working is well established is less certain. None of the studies reviewed included an economic evaluation and thus it is not known whether their benefits justify the costs of their implementation.