Background: Communities of Practice (CoPs) are promoted in the healthcare sector as a means of generating and sharing knowledge and improving organisational performance. However CoPs vary considerably in the way they are structured and operate in the sector. If CoPs are to be cultivated to benefit healthcare organisations, there is a need to examine and understand their application to date. To this end, a systematic review of the literature on CoPs was conducted, to examine how and why CoPs have been established and whether they have been shown to improve healthcare practice.
Methods: Peer-reviewed empirical research papers on CoPs in the healthcare sector were identified by searching electronic health-databases. Information on the purpose of establishing CoPs, their composition, methods by which members communicate and share information or knowledge, and research methods used to examine effectiveness was extracted and reviewed. Also examined was evidence of whether or not CoPs led to a change in healthcare practice.
Results: Thirty-one primary research papers and two systematic reviews were identified and reviewed in detail. There was a trend from descriptive to evaluative research. The focus of CoPs in earlier publications was on learning and exchanging information and knowledge, whereas in more recently published research, CoPs were used more as a tool to improve clinical practice and to facilitate the implementation of evidence-based practice. Means by which members communicated with each other varied, but in none of the primary research studies was the method of communication examined in terms of the CoP achieving its objectives. Researchers are increasing their efforts to assess the effectiveness of CoPs in healthcare, however the interventions have been complex and multifaceted, making it difficult to directly attribute the change to the CoP.
Conclusions: In keeping with Wenger and colleagues' description, CoPs in the healthcare sector vary in form and purpose. While researchers are increasing their efforts to examine the impact of CoPs in healthcare, cultivating CoPs to improve healthcare performance requires a greater understanding of how to establish and support CoPs to maximise their potential to improve healthcare.