Background: Despite growth in implementation research, limited scientific attention has focused on understanding and improving sustainability of health interventions. Models of sustainability have been evolving to reflect challenges in the fit between intervention and context.
Discussion: We examine the development of concepts of sustainability, and respond to two frequent assumptions -'voltage drop,' whereby interventions are expected to yield lower benefits as they move from efficacy to effectiveness to implementation and sustainability, and 'program drift,' whereby deviation from manualized protocols is assumed to decrease benefit. We posit that these assumptions limit opportunities to improve care, and instead argue for understanding the changing context of healthcare to continuously refine and improve interventions as they are sustained. Sustainability has evolved from being considered as the endgame of a translational research process to a suggested 'adaptation phase' that integrates and institutionalizes interventions within local organizational and cultural contexts. These recent approaches locate sustainability in the implementation phase of knowledge transfer, but still do not address intervention improvement as a central theme. We propose a Dynamic Sustainability Framework that involves: continued learning and problem solving, ongoing adaptation of interventions with a primary focus on fit between interventions and multi-level contexts, and expectations for ongoing improvement as opposed to diminishing outcomes over time.
Summary: A Dynamic Sustainability Framework provides a foundation for research, policy and practice that supports development and testing of falsifiable hypotheses and continued learning to advance the implementation, transportability and impact of health services research.