Conceptualizing clinical decision support as complex interventions: a meta-analysis of comparative effectiveness trials

J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2022 Sep 12;29(10):1744-1756. doi: 10.1093/jamia/ocac089.


Objectives: Complex interventions with multiple components and behavior change strategies are increasingly implemented as a form of clinical decision support (CDS) using native electronic health record functionality. Objectives of this study were, therefore, to (1) identify the proportion of randomized controlled trials with CDS interventions that were complex, (2) describe common gaps in the reporting of complexity in CDS research, and (3) determine the impact of increased complexity on CDS effectiveness.

Materials and methods: To assess CDS complexity and identify reporting gaps for characterizing CDS interventions, we used the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses reporting tool for complex interventions. We evaluated the effect of increased complexity using random-effects meta-analysis.

Results: Most included studies evaluated a complex CDS intervention (76%). No studies described use of analytical frameworks or causal pathways. Two studies discussed use of theory but only one fully described the rationale and put it in context of a behavior change. A small but positive effect (standardized mean difference, 0.147; 95% CI, 0.039-0.255; P < .01) in favor of increasing intervention complexity was observed.

Discussion: While most CDS studies should classify interventions as complex, opportunities persist for documenting and providing resources in a manner that would enable CDS interventions to be replicated and adapted. Unless reporting of the design, implementation, and evaluation of CDS interventions improves, only slight benefits can be expected.

Conclusion: Conceptualizing CDS as complex interventions may help convey the careful attention that is needed to ensure these interventions are contextually and theoretically informed.

Keywords: clinical decision support; comparative effectiveness; complex intervention; electronic health record; reporting guideline.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Decision Support Systems, Clinical*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic