Objective: To review the literature relating to the effectiveness of education strategies designed to change physician performance and health care outcomes.
Data sources: We searched MEDLINE, ERIC, NTIS, the Research and Development Resource Base in Continuing Medical Education, and other relevant data sources from 1975 to 1994, using continuing medical education (CME) and related terms as keywords. We manually searched journals and the bibliographies of other review articles and called on the opinions of recognized experts.
Study selection: We reviewed studies that met the following criteria: randomized controlled trials of education strategies or interventions that objectively assessed physician performance and/or health care outcomes. These intervention strategies included (alone and in combination) educational materials, formal CME activities, outreach visits such as academic detailing, opinion leaders, patient-mediated strategies, audit with feedback, and reminders. Studies were selected only if more than 50% of the subjects were either practicing physicians or medical residents.
Data extraction: We extracted the specialty of the physicians targeted by the interventions and the clinical domain and setting of the trial. We also determined the details of the educational intervention, the extent to which needs or barriers to change had been ascertained prior to the intervention, and the main outcome measure(s).
Data synthesis: We found 99 trials, containing 160 interventions, that met our criteria. Almost two thirds of the interventions (101 of 160) displayed an improvement in at least one major outcome measure: 70% demonstrated a change in physician performance, and 48% of interventions aimed at health care outcomes produced a positive change. Effective change strategies included reminders, patient-mediated interventions, outreach visits, opinion leaders, and multifaceted activities. Audit with feedback and educational materials were less effective, and formal CME conferences or activities, without enabling or practice-reinforcing strategies, had relatively little impact.
Conclusion: Widely used CME delivery methods such as conferences have little direct impact on improving professional practice. More effective methods such as systematic practice-based interventions and outreach visits are seldom used by CME providers.