A systematic review of empirical studies examining mechanisms of implementation in health

Implement Sci. 2020 Apr 16;15(1):21. doi: 10.1186/s13012-020-00983-3.


Background: Understanding the mechanisms of implementation strategies (i.e., the processes by which strategies produce desired effects) is important for research to understand why a strategy did or did not achieve its intended effect, and it is important for practice to ensure strategies are designed and selected to directly target determinants or barriers. This study is a systematic review to characterize how mechanisms are conceptualized and measured, how they are studied and evaluated, and how much evidence exists for specific mechanisms.

Methods: We systematically searched PubMed and CINAHL Plus for implementation studies published between January 1990 and August 2018 that included the terms "mechanism," "mediator," or "moderator." Two authors independently reviewed title and abstracts and then full texts for fit with our inclusion criteria of empirical studies of implementation in health care contexts. Authors extracted data regarding general study information, methods, results, and study design and mechanisms-specific information. Authors used the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool to assess study quality.

Results: Search strategies produced 2277 articles, of which 183 were included for full text review. From these we included for data extraction 39 articles plus an additional seven articles were hand-entered from only other review of implementation mechanisms (total = 46 included articles). Most included studies employed quantitative methods (73.9%), while 10.9% were qualitative and 15.2% were mixed methods. Nine unique versions of models testing mechanisms emerged. Fifty-three percent of the studies met half or fewer of the quality indicators. The majority of studies (84.8%) only met three or fewer of the seven criteria stipulated for establishing mechanisms.

Conclusions: Researchers have undertaken a multitude of approaches to pursue mechanistic implementation research, but our review revealed substantive conceptual, methodological, and measurement issues that must be addressed in order to advance this critical research agenda. To move the field forward, there is need for greater precision to achieve conceptual clarity, attempts to generate testable hypotheses about how and why variables are related, and use of concrete behavioral indicators of proximal outcomes in the case of quantitative research and more directed inquiry in the case of qualitative research.

Keywords: Causal model; Determinant; Implementation; Mechanism; Mediator; Moderator; Theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care / organization & administration*
  • Delivery of Health Care / standards
  • Evidence-Based Practice / organization & administration
  • Humans
  • Implementation Science*
  • Information Dissemination
  • Research Design
  • Translational Research, Biomedical / organization & administration