Background: The Medical Research Councils' framework for complex interventions has been criticized for not including theory-driven approaches to evaluation. Although the framework does include broad guidance on the use of theory, it contains little practical guidance for implementers and there have been calls to develop a more comprehensive approach. A prospective, theory-driven process of intervention design and evaluation is required to develop complex healthcare interventions which are more likely to be effective, sustainable and scalable.
Methods: We propose a theory-driven approach to the design and evaluation of complex interventions by adapting and integrating a programmatic design and evaluation tool, Theory of Change (ToC), into the MRC framework for complex interventions. We provide a guide to what ToC is, how to construct one, and how to integrate its use into research projects seeking to design, implement and evaluate complex interventions using the MRC framework. We test this approach by using ToC within two randomized controlled trials and one non-randomized evaluation of complex interventions.
Results: Our application of ToC in three research projects has shown that ToC can strengthen key stages of the MRC framework. It can aid the development of interventions by providing a framework for enhanced stakeholder engagement and by explicitly designing an intervention that is embedded in the local context. For the feasibility and piloting stage, ToC enables the systematic identification of knowledge gaps to generate research questions that strengthen intervention design. ToC may improve the evaluation of interventions by providing a comprehensive set of indicators to evaluate all stages of the causal pathway through which an intervention achieves impact, combining evaluations of intervention effectiveness with detailed process evaluations into one theoretical framework.
Conclusions: Incorporating a ToC approach into the MRC framework holds promise for improving the design and evaluation of complex interventions, thereby increasing the likelihood that the intervention will be ultimately effective, sustainable and scalable. We urge researchers developing and evaluating complex interventions to consider using this approach, to evaluate its usefulness and to build an evidence base to further refine the methodology.
Trial registration: Clinical trials.gov: NCT02160249.