Decision support tools to improve cancer diagnostic decision making in primary care: a systematic review

Br J Gen Pract. 2019 Nov 28;69(689):e809-e818. doi: 10.3399/bjgp19X706745. Print 2019 Dec.


Background: The diagnosis of cancer in primary care is complex and challenging. Electronic clinical decision support tools (eCDSTs) have been proposed as an approach to improve GP decision making, but no systematic review has examined their role in cancer diagnosis.

Aim: To investigate whether eCDSTs improve diagnostic decision making for cancer in primary care and to determine which elements influence successful implementation.

Design and setting: A systematic review of relevant studies conducted worldwide and published in English between 1 January 1998 and 31 December 2018.

Method: Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were followed. MEDLINE, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched, and a consultation of reference lists and citation tracking was carried out. Exclusion criteria included the absence of eCDSTs used in asymptomatic populations, and studies that did not involve support delivered to the GP. The most relevant Joanna Briggs Institute Critical Appraisal Checklists were applied according to study design of the included paper.

Results: Of the nine studies included, three showed improvements in decision making for cancer diagnosis, three demonstrated positive effects on secondary clinical or health service outcomes such as prescribing, quality of referrals, or cost-effectiveness, and one study found a reduction in time to cancer diagnosis. Barriers to implementation included trust, the compatibility of eCDST recommendations with the GP's role as a gatekeeper, and impact on workflow.

Conclusion: eCDSTs have the capacity to improve decision making for a cancer diagnosis, but the optimal mode of delivery remains unclear. Although such tools could assist GPs in the future, further well-designed trials of all eCDSTs are needed to determine their cost-effectiveness and the most appropriate implementation methods.

Keywords: cancer; clinical decision support tool; early diagnosis; general practitioners; primary health care.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Decision-Making*
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Decision Support Systems, Clinical*
  • Humans
  • Implementation Science
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Trust
  • Workflow