Can Guidelines Harm Patients?

2 05 2012

ResearchBlogging.orgRecently I saw an intriguing “personal view” in the BMJ written by Grant Hutchison entitled: “Can Guidelines Harm Patients Too?” Hutchison is a consultant anesthetist with -as he calls it- chronic guideline fatigue syndrome. Hutchison underwent an acute exacerbation of his “condition” with the arrival of another set of guidelines in his email inbox. Hutchison:

On reviewing the level of evidence provided for the various recommendations being offered, I was struck by the fact that no relevant clinical trials had been carried out in the population of interest. Eleven out of 25 of the recommendations made were supported only by the lowest levels of published evidence (case reports and case series, or inference from studies not directly applicable to the relevant population). A further seven out of 25 were derived only from the expert opinion of members of the guidelines committee, in the absence of any guidance to be gleaned from the published literature.

Hutchison’s personal experience is supported by evidence from two articles [2,3].

One paper published in the JAMA 2009 [2] concludes that ACC/AHA (American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association) clinical practice guidelines are largely developed from lower levels of evidence or expert opinion and that the proportion of recommendations for which there is no conclusive evidence is growing. Only 314 recommendations of 2711 (median, 11%) are classified as level of evidence A , thus recommendation based on evidence from multiple randomized trials or meta-analyses.  The majority of recommendations (1246/2711; median, 48%) are level of evidence C, thus based  on expert opinion, case studies, or standards of care. Strikingly only 245 of 1305 class I recommendations are based on the highest level A evidence (median, 19%).

Another paper, published in Ann Intern Med 2011 [3], reaches similar conclusions analyzing the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) Practice Guidelines. Of the 4218 individual recommendations found, only 14% were supported by the strongest (level I) quality of evidence; more than half were based on level III evidence only. Like the ACC/AHH guidelines only a small part (23%) of the strongest IDSA recommendations, were based on level I evidence (in this case ≥1 randomized controlled trial, see below). And, here too, the new recommendations were mostly based on level II and III evidence.

Although there is little to argue about Hutchison’s observations, I do not agree with his conclusions.

In his view guidelines are equivalent to a bullet pointed list or flow diagram, allowing busy practitioners to move on from practice based on mere anecdote and opinion. It therefore seems contradictory that half of the EBM-guidelines are based on little more than anecdote (case series, extrapolation from other populations) and opinion. He then argues that guidelines, like other therapeutic interventions, should be considered in terms of balance between benefit and risk and that the risk  associated with the dissemination of poorly founded guidelines must also be considered. One of those risks is that doctors will just tend to adhere to the guidelines, and may even change their own (adequate) practice  in the absence of any scientific evidence against it. If a patient is harmed despite punctilious adherence to the guideline-rules,  “it is easy to be seduced into assuming that the bad outcome was therefore unavoidable”. But perhaps harm was done by following the guideline….

First of all, overall evidence shows that adherence to guidelines can improve patient outcome and provide more cost effective care (Naveed Mustfa in a comment refers to [4]).

Hutchinson’s piece is opinion-based and rather driven by (understandable) gut feelings and implicit assumptions, that also surround EBM in general.

  1. First there is the assumption that guidelines are a fixed set of rules, like a protocol, and that there is no room for preferences (both of the doctor and the patient), interpretations and experience. In the same way as EBM is often degraded to “cookbook medicine”, EBM guidelines are turned into mere bullet pointed lists made by a bunch of experts that just want to impose their opinions as truth.
  2. The second assumption (shared by many) is that evidence based medicine is synonymous with “randomized controlled trials”. In analogy, only those EBM guideline recommendations “count” that are based on RCT’s or meta-analyses.

Before I continue, I would strongly advice all readers (and certainly all EBM and guideline-skeptics) to read this excellent and clearly written BJM-editorial by David Sackett et al. that deals with misconceptions, myths and prejudices surrounding EBM : Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t [5].

Sackett et al define EBM as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients” [5]. Sackett emphasizes that “Good doctors use both individual clinical expertise and the best available external evidence, and neither alone is enough. Without clinical expertise, practice risks becoming tyrannised by evidence, for even excellent external evidence may be inapplicable to or inappropriate for an individual patient. Without current best evidence, practice risks becoming rapidly out of date, to the detriment of patients.”

Guidelines are meant to give recommendations based on the best available evidence. Guidelines should not be a set of rules, set in stone. Ideally, guidelines have gathered evidence in a transparent way and make it easier for the clinicians to grasp the evidence for a certain procedure in a certain situation … and to see the gaps.

Contrary to what many people think, EBM is not restricted to randomized trials and meta-analyses. It involves tracking down the best external evidence there is. As I explained in #NotSoFunny #16 – Ridiculing RCTs & EBM, evidence is not an all-or-nothing thing: RCT’s (if well performed) are the most robust, but if not available we have to rely on “lower” evidence (from cohort to case-control to case series or expert opinion even).
On the other hand RCT’s are often not even suitable to answer questions in other domains than therapy (etiology/harm, prognosis, diagnosis): per definition the level of evidence for these kind of questions inevitably will be low*. Also, for some interventions RCT’s are not appropriate, feasible or too costly to perform (cesarean vs vaginal birth; experimental therapies, rare diseases, see also [3]).

It is also good to realize that guidance, based on numerous randomized controlled trials is probably not or limited applicable to groups of patients who are seldom included in a RCT: the cognitively impaired, the patient with multiple comorbidities [6], the old patient [6], children and (often) women.

Finally not all RCTs are created equal (various forms of bias; surrogate outcomes; small sample sizes, short follow-up), and thus should not all represent the same high level of evidence.*

Thus in my opinion, low levels of evidence are not per definition problematic. Even if they are the basis for strong recommendations. As long as it is clear how the recommendations were reached and as long as these are well underpinned (by whatever evidence or motivation). One could see the exposed gaps in evidence as a positive thing as it may highlight the need for clinical research in certain fields.

There is one BIG BUT: my assumption is that guidelines are “just” recommendations based on exhaustive and objective reviews of existing evidence. No more, no less. This means that the clinician must have the freedom to deviate from the recommendations, based on his own expertise and/or the situation and/or the patient’s preferences. The more, when the evidence on which these strong recommendations are based is ‘scant’. Sackett already warned for the possible hijacking of EBM by purchasers and managers (and may I add health insurances and governmental agencies) to cut the costs of health care and to impose “rules”.

I therefore think it is odd that the ACC/AHA guidelines prescribe that Class I recommendations SHOULD be performed/administered even if they are based on level C recommendations (see Figure).

I also find it odd that different guidelines have a different nomenclature. The ACC/AHA have Class I, IIa, IIb and III recommendations and level A, B, C evidence where level A evidence represents sufficient evidence from multiple randomized trials and meta-analyses, whereas the strength of recommendations in the IDSA guidelines includes levels A through C (OR D/E recommendations against use) and quality of evidence ranges from level I through III , where I indicates evidence from (just) 1 properly randomized controlled trial. As explained in [3] this system was introduced to evaluate the effectiveness of preventive health care interventions in Canada (for which RCTs are apt).

Finally, guidelines and guideline makers should probably be more open for input/feedback from people who apply these guidelines.


*the new GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) scoring system taking into account good quality observational studies as well may offer a potential solution.

Another possibly relevant post at this blog: The Best Study Design for … Dummies

Taken from a summary of an ACC/AHA guideline at
Click to enlarge.


  1. Hutchison, G. (2012). Guidelines can harm patients too BMJ, 344 (apr18 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.e2685
  2. Tricoci P, Allen JM, Kramer JM, Califf RM, & Smith SC Jr (2009). Scientific evidence underlying the ACC/AHA clinical practice guidelines. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 301 (8), 831-41 PMID: 19244190
  3. Lee, D., & Vielemeyer, O. (2011). Analysis of Overall Level of Evidence Behind Infectious Diseases Society of America Practice Guidelines Archives of Internal Medicine, 171 (1), 18-22 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2010.482
  4. Menéndez R, Reyes S, Martínez R, de la Cuadra P, Manuel Vallés J, & Vallterra J (2007). Economic evaluation of adherence to treatment guidelines in nonintensive care pneumonia. The European respiratory journal : official journal of the European Society for Clinical Respiratory Physiology, 29 (4), 751-6 PMID: 17005580
  5. Sackett, D., Rosenberg, W., Gray, J., Haynes, R., & Richardson, W. (1996). Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t BMJ, 312 (7023), 71-72 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.312.7023.71
  6. Aylett, V. (2010). Do geriatricians need guidelines? BMJ, 341 (sep29 3) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.c5340