Objective: To examine the state of the art in the field of medical practice guidelines, to identify limitations, and to suggest future directions.
Design: Informal descriptive survey using a questionnaire administered by telephone, supplemented by comments, by opinions, and by examples solicited from the participating organizations.
Participants: Eight prominent organizations representing prototypic approaches to guideline development; these organizations included three medical societies, two health care organizations, two insurers, and one private health benefits management company.
Results: Improving the quality of medical care was a stated goal of all eight surveyed organizations. However, their objectives have not been stated in operational terms, reflecting the lesser emphasis placed on methods and means for both implementing guidelines and evaluating their impact on health practices and outcomes. In contrast, several systematic methods for developing guidelines exist. They differ in the stress placed on formal literature reviews, reliance on local as opposed to national experts, and formal methods of group judgment, but no evidence exists on which approaches produce sounder and more usable guidelines.
Conclusions: Guidelines are being vigorously promoted as a means to improve the effectiveness of the health care system. Current initiatives show both strengths and weaknesses. In particular, the attention now paid to the development of guidelines needs to be matched by attention to implementation strategies and to the scientific evaluation of their effectiveness in real clinical settings. Also, more agreement is needed on acceptable methods for developing guidelines, assessing their content, and evaluating their impact on professional behavior, patient outcomes, and health care costs. Fortunately, several initiatives to bring greater order and quality to this field are under way.