IOM Recommends Standards to Achieve Reliable Clinical Practice Guidelines

March 23, 2011

Two new reports from the IOM recommend standards to enhance the quality and reliability of clinical practice guidelines for informing health care decisions.

Clinical practice guidelines and systematic reviews of the evidence base for health care services are supposed to offer health care providers, patients, and organizations authoritative guidance on the comparable pros and cons of various care options, but too often they are of uncertain or poor quality.

There are no universally accepted standards for developing systematic reviews and clinical practice guidelines, leading to variability in the handling of conflicts of interest, appraisals of evidence, and the rigor of the evaluations. Two new reports from the Institute of Medicine recommend standards to enhance the quality and reliability of these important tools for informing health care decisions.

“Clinical Practice Guidelines We Can Trust” recommends eight standards to ensure the objective, transparent development of trustworthy guidelines. Several problems hinder the ability of providers and others to determine which among thousands of sometimes competing guidelines offer reliable clinical recommendations.

“Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews” recommends 21 standards to ensure objective, transparent, and scientifically valid reviews. Poor quality reviews can lead clinicians to the wrong conclusions and ultimately to inappropriate treatment decisions.

“These standards are necessary given that there is little documentation to judge the quality and reliability of many of the existing clinical practice guidelines,” Sheldon Greenfield, MD, executive director of the Health Policy Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine, and chair of the committee on guidelines.

“Practice guidelines provide valuable data and guidance that not only inform individual decisions about care but ultimately could also improve overall health care quality and outcomes,” Greenfield said in a statement.

“This report presents the gold standard to which those who conduct systematic reviews should aspire to achieve the most reliable and useful products,” said Alfred O. Berg, professor of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and chair of the committee that wrote the report on systematic reviews.

“We recognize that it will take an investment of resources and time to achieve such high standards, but they should be adopted to minimize the chances that important health decisions are based on information that may be biased or erroneous.”

According to the guidelines report, to prevent actual or perceived conflicts of interest from eroding trust in clinical practice guidelines, members of guideline development groups should not have intellectual, institutional, financial, or other forms of conflicts whenever possible. However, if a group cannot perform its work without conflicted individuals, they should make up only a minority of the members.

Those who fund guideline development work should have no role in the development process. Similarly, individuals with clear financial conflicts of interest as well as those with professional or intellectual biases that would lessen an evaluation's credibility should be excluded from the teams that conduct systematic reviews, the report on reviews says.

Getting input from consumers, health professionals, insurers, and other intended users can boost the quality of reviews and guidelines and make them more relevant. Guideline development groups should include a current or former patient and a patient advocate or representative of a consumer organization.

Systematic reviews should include a method to collect information from individuals with relevant perspectives and expertise. Individuals providing input should publicly acknowledge their potential biases and conflicts and be excluded from the process if their participation would diminish the evaluation's credibility.