The purpose is to systematically review randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to change family physicians' laboratory test-ordering. We searched 15 electronic databases (no language/date limitations). We identified 29 RCTs (4,111 physicians, 175,563 patients). Six studies specifically focused on reducing unnecessary tests, 23 on increasing screening tests. Using Cochrane methodology 48.5% of studies were low risk-of-bias for randomisation, 7% concealment of randomisation, 17% blinding of participants/personnel, 21% blinding outcome assessors, 27.5% attrition, 93% selective reporting. Only six studies were low risk for both randomisation and attrition. Twelve studies performed a power computation, three an intention-to-treat analysis and 13 statistically controlled clustering. Unweighted averages were computed to compare intervention/control groups for tests assessed by >5 studies. The results were that fourteen studies assessed lipids (average 10% more tests than control), 14 diabetes (average 8% > control), 5 cervical smears, 2 INR, one each thyroid, fecal occult-blood, cotinine, throat-swabs, testing after prescribing, and urine-cultures. Six studies aimed to decrease test groups (average decrease 18%), and two to increase test groups. Intervention strategies: one study used education (no change): two feedback (one 5% increase, one 27% desired decrease); eight education + feedback (average increase in desired direction >control 4.9%), ten system change (average increase 14.9%), one system change + feedback (increases 5-44%), three education + system change (average increase 6%), three education + system change + feedback (average 7.7% increase), one delayed testing. The conclusions are that only six RCTs were assessed at low risk of bias from both randomisation and attrition. Nevertheless, despite methodological shortcomings studies that found large changes (e.g. >20%) probably obtained real change.
Keywords: family doctors; lab tests; meta-analysis; randomized controlled trials; systematic review.