How has the impact of 'care pathway technologies' on service integration in stroke care been measured and what is the strength of the evidence to support their effectiveness in this respect?

Davina Allen, Laura Rixson
JBI Library of Systematic Reviews 2008, 6 (15): 583-632

BACKGROUND: Across the developed world, we are witnessing an increasing emphasis on the need for more closely coordinated forms of health and social care provision. Integrated care pathways (ICPs) have emerged as a response to this aspiration and are believed by many to address the factors which contribute to service integration. ICPs map out a patient's journey, providing coordination of services for users. They aim to have: 'the right people, doing the right things, in the right order, at the right time, in the right place, with the right outcome'. The value for ICPs in supporting the delivery of care across organisational boundaries, providing greater consistency in practice, improving service continuity and increasing collaboration has been advocated by many. However, there is little evidence to support their use, and the need for systematic evaluations in order to measure their effectiveness has been widely identified. A recent Cochrane review assessed the effects of ICPs on functional outcome, process of care, quality of life and hospitalisation costs of inpatients with acute stroke, but did not specifically focus on service integration or its derivatives. To the best of our knowledge, no such systematic review of the literature exists.

OBJECTIVES: INCLUSION CRITERIA: Types of participants The review focused on the care of adult patients who had suffered a stroke. It included the full spectrum of services - acute care, rehabilitation and long-term support - in hospital and community settings.Types of intervention(s)/phenomena of interest Integrated care pathways were the intervention of interest, defined for the purpose of this review as 'a multidisciplinary tool to improve the quality and efficiency of evidence based care and is used as a communication tool between professionals to manage and standardise the outcome orientated care'. Here 'multidisciplinary' is taken to refer to the involvement of two or more disciplines.Types of outcomes Service integration' was the outcome of interest however, this was defined and measured in the selected studies.Types of studies This review was concerned with how 'service integration' was defined in evaluations of ICPs; the type of evidence utilised in measuring the impact of the intervention and the weight of evidence to support the effectiveness of care pathway technologies on 'service integration'. Studies that made an explicit link between ICPs and service integration were included in the review. Evidence generated from randomised controlled trials, quasi-experimental, qualitative and health economics research was sought. The search was limited to publications after 1980, coinciding with the emergence of ICPs in the healthcare context. Assessment for inclusion of foreign papers was based on the English-language abstract, where available. These were included only if an English translation was available.

EXCLUSION CRITERIA: This review excluded studies that: SEARCH STRATEGY: In order to avoid replication, the Joanna Briggs Institute for Evidence Based Nursing and Midwifery Database and the Cochrane Library were searched to establish that no systematic reviews existed and none were in progress. A three-stage search strategy was then used to identify both published and unpublished studies (see ).

DATA COLLECTION: Our search strategy located 2123 papers, of which 39 were retrieved for further evaluation. We critically appraised seven papers, representing five studies. These were all evaluation studies and, as is typical in this field, comprised a range of study designs and data collection methods. Owing to the diversity of the study types included in the review, we developed a single-appraisal checklist and data-extractiontool which could be applied to all research designs. The tool drew on the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) appraisal checklists for experimental studies and interpretive and critical research, and also incorporated specific information and issues which were relevant for our purposes (see ). This extends the thinking outlined in Lyne et al. in which, drawing on Campbell and Stanley's classic paper, the case is made for developing an appraisal tool which is applicable to all types of evaluation, irrespective of study design.In assessing the quality of the papers, we were sympathetic to the methodological challenges of evaluating complex interventions such as ICPs. We were also cognisant of the very real constraints in which service evaluations are frequently undertaken in healthcare contexts. In accordance with the aims of this particular review, we have included studies, which are methodologically weaker than is typical of many systematic reviews because, in our view, in the absence of stronger evidence, they yield useful information.

DATA SYNTHESIS: Given the heterogeneity of the included studies, meta-analysis and/or qualitative synthesis was not possible. A narrative summary of the study findings is presented.

RESULTS: Therefore, we do not know whether the costs of ICP development and implementation are justified by any of the reported benefits.

CONCLUSIONS: Implications for practice There is some evidence that ICPs may support certain elements of service integration in the context of stroke care. This seems to be as a result of their ability to support the timely implementation of clinical interventions and the mobilisation of resources around the patient without incurring additional increases in length of stay. ICPs appear to be most successful in improving service coordination in the acute stroke context where patient care trajectories are predictable. Their value in the context of rehabilitation settings in which recovery pathways are more variable is less clear. There is some evidence that ICPs may be effective in bringing about behavioural changes in contexts where deficiencies in service provision have been identified. Their value in contexts where inter-professional working is well established is less clear. While earlier before and after studies show a reduction in length of stay in ICP-managed care, this may reflect wider healthcare trends, and the failure of later studies to demonstrate further reductions suggests that there may be limits as to how far this can continue to be reduced. There is some evidence to suggest that ICPs bring about improvements in documentation, but we do not know how far documented practice reflects actual practice. It is unclear how ICPs have their effects and the relative importance of the process of development and the artefact in use. As none of the studies reviewed included an economic evaluation, moreover, it remains unclear whether the benefits of ICPs justify the costs of their implementation.

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