OBJECTIVES: To assess the attitudes of senior hospital staff towards clinical guidelines, and to ascertain the perceived extent and benefits of their local use; to identify those hospitals with current or planned future written strategies for the systematic development of clinical guidelines, and the staff responsible for leading them; and to establish the essential elements of existing strategies, and the methods used to ensure the proper development, dissemination, implementation, and evaluation of local guidelines. DESIGN: Cross sectional survey. PARTICIPANTS: Senior staff of 270 acute hospitals in the United Kingdom (response rate 202/270 (75%)) in 1995. RESULTS: 197/199 (99%) of respondents thought that clinical guidelines were a good idea, and 176/196 (90%) were aware of some guideline activity occurring within their hospitals. The most important benefits of local guideline activity were increased healthcare efficiency and effectiveness, greater consistency of treatment, and team building. 174/194 (90%) of respondents were in favour of the development of a readily accessible national repository of evidence-based clinical guidelines. 38/201 (19%) of respondents had a clinical guidelines strategy and a further 91/201 (45%) said that they had plans to develop one in the near future. The need to improve clinical outcomes was most often reported as the reason for developing a strategy. Medical directors most commonly had formal responsibility to lead the strategy, but someone without formal responsibility ran the operation in half the hospitals. Only 18/36 (50%) of strategies gave advice on the development of guidelines; and only a few strategies made explicit statements on which clinical services to target for guideline development, or the methods to be used for their validation and promotion. Some strategies lacked explicit statements on methods to monitor adherence, routine review, and update of guidelines. Internal literature searches (29/31 (94%)), the use of national guidelines (29/32 (91%)), local consensus conferences (28/32 (88%)), and peer group review (21/24 (88%)) were the most popular methods of validation used in hospitals with a strategy. Methods used to promote the dissemination, implementation, and evaluation of clinical guidelines included clinical audit (31/32 (97%)), peer review (25/30 (83%)), continuing education (23/29 (79%)), targeting of opinion leaders (17/26 (65%)), use of structured case notes (14/31 (45%)), patient mediated interventions (9/26 (35%)), and patient specific reminders (8/26 (31%)). CONCLUSIONS: Most senior hospital staff have a favourable attitude towards clinical guidelines. Most hospitals are undertaking some guideline activity, but few seem to be doing so within a locally agreed hospital wide strategy in which guideline development, dissemination, implementation, and evaluation are systematically considered. Many of the current methods used to validate guidelines locally are inadequate. Evidence-based clinical guidelines should be developed nationally, leaving hospitals to focus their energies on the local adaptation, dissemination, implementation, and evaluation of such guidelines. Only in this way will local guidelines achieve their full potential to improve clinical care and patient outcomes.
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