Developing a comprehensive definition of sustainability

Implement Sci. 2017 Sep 2;12(1):110. doi: 10.1186/s13012-017-0637-1.


Background: Understanding sustainability is one of the significant implementation science challenges. One of the big challenges in researching sustainability is the lack of consistent definitions in the literature. Most implementation studies do not present a definition of sustainability, even when assessing sustainability. The aim of the current study was to systematically develop a comprehensive definition of sustainability based on definitions already used in the literature.

Methods: We searched for knowledge syntheses of sustainability and abstracted sustainability definitions from the articles identified through any relevant systematic and scoping reviews. The constructs in the abstracted sustainability definitions were mapped to an existing definition. The comprehensive definition of sustainability was revised to include emerging constructs.

Results: We identified four knowledge syntheses of sustainability, which identified 209 original articles. Of the 209 articles, 24 (11.5%) included a definition of sustainability. These definitions were mapped to three constructs from an existing definition, and nine new constructs emerged. We reviewed all constructs and created a revised definition: (1) after a defined period of time, (2) a program, clinical intervention, and/or implementation strategies continue to be delivered and/or (3) individual behavior change (i.e., clinician, patient) is maintained; (4) the program and individual behavior change may evolve or adapt while (5) continuing to produce benefits for individuals/systems. All 24 definitions were remapped to the comprehensive definition (percent agreement among three coders was 94%). Of the 24 definitions, 17 described the continued delivery of a program (70.8%), 17 mentioned continued outcomes (70.8%), 13 mentioned time (54.2%), 8 addressed the individual maintenance of a behavior change (33.3%), and 6 described the evolution or adaptation (25.0%).

Conclusions: We drew from over 200 studies to identify 24 existing definitions of sustainability. Based on these definitions, we identified five key sustainability constructs, which can be used as the basis for future research on sustainability. Our next step is to identify sustainability frameworks and develop a meta-framework using a concept mapping approach to consolidate the factors and considerations across sustainability frameworks.

Keywords: Evidence-based programs; Evolution; Implementation strategies; Institutionalization; Maintenance; Routinization; Sustainability; Sustainment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care / methods*
  • Health Plan Implementation / methods*
  • Health Services Research / methods*
  • Humans
  • Program Evaluation / methods*