Editorials

Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn't

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7023.71 (Published 13 January 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:71
  1. David L Sackett,
  2. William M C Rosenberg,
  3. J A Muir Gray,
  4. R Brian Haynes,
  5. W Scott Richardson
  1. Professor NHS Research and Development Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Oxford Radcliffe NHS Trust, Oxford OX3 9DU
  2. Clinical tutor in medicine Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford
  3. Director of research and development Anglia and Oxford Regional Health Authority, Milton Keynes
  4. Professor of medicine and clinical epidemiology McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario Canada
  5. Clinical associate professor of medicine University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, New York, USA

    It's about integrating individual clinical expertise and the best external evidence

    Evidence based medicine, whose philosophical origins extend back to mid-19th century Paris and earlier, remains a hot topic for clinicians, public health practitioners, purchasers, planners, and the public. There are now frequent workshops in how to practice and teach it (one sponsored by the BMJ will be held in London on 24 April); undergraduate1 and postgraduate2 training programmes are incorporating it3 (or pondering how to do so); British centres for evidence based practice have been established or planned in adult medicine, child health, surgery, pathology, pharmacotherapy, nursing, general practice, and dentistry; the Cochrane Collaboration and Britain's Centre for Review and Dissemination in York are providing systematic reviews of the effects of health care; new evidence based practice journals are being launched; and it has become a common topic in the lay media. But enthusiasm has been mixed with some negative reaction.4 5 6 Criticism has ranged from evidence based medicine being old hat to it being a dangerous innovation, perpetrated by the arrogant to serve cost cutters and suppress clinical freedom. As evidence based medicine continues to evolve and adapt, now is a useful time to refine the discussion of what it is and what it is not.

    Evidence based medicine is the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise we mean the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice. Increased expertise is reflected in many ways, but especially in more effective and efficient diagnosis and in the more thoughtful identification and compassionate use of individual patients' predicaments, rights, and preferences in making clinical decisions about their care. By best available external clinical evidence we mean clinically relevant research, often from the basic sciences of medicine, but especially from patient centred clinical research into the accuracy and precision of diagnostic tests (including the clinical examination), the power of prognostic markers, and the efficacy and safety of therapeutic, rehabilitative, and preventive regimens. External clinical evidence both invalidates previously accepted diagnostic tests and treatments and replaces them with new ones that are more powerful, more accurate, more efficacious, and safer.

    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.

    This description of what evidence based medicine is helps clarify what evidence based medicine is not. Evidence based medicine is neither old hat nor impossible to practice. The argument that “everyone already is doing it” falls before evidence of striking variations in both the integration of patient values into our clinical behaviour7 and in the rates with which clinicians provide interventions to their patients.8 The difficulties that clinicians face in keeping abreast of all the medical advances reported in primary journals are obvious from a comparison of the time required for reading (for general medicine, enough to examine 19 articles per day, 365 days per year9) with the time available (well under an hour a week by British medical consultants, even on self reports10).

    The argument that evidence based medicine can be conducted only from ivory towers and armchairs is refuted by audits from the front lines of clinical care where at least some inpatient clinical teams in general medicine,11 psychiatry (J R Geddes et al, Royal College of Psychiatrists winter meeting, January 1996), and surgery (P McCulloch, personal communication) have provided evidence based care to the vast majority of their patients. Such studies show that busy clinicians who devote their scarce reading time to selective, efficient, patient driven searching, appraisal, and incorporation of the best available evidence can practice evidence based medicine.

    Evidence based medicine is not “cookbook” medicine. Because it requires a bottom up approach that integrates the best external evidence with individual clinical expertise and patients' choice, it cannot result in slavish, cookbook approaches to individual patient care. External clinical evidence can inform, but can never replace, individual clinical expertise, and it is this expertise that decides whether the external evidence applies to the individual patient at all and, if so, how it should be integrated into a clinical decision. Similarly, any external guideline must be integrated with individual clinical expertise in deciding whether and how it matches the patient's clinical state, predicament, and preferences, and thus whether it should be applied. Clinicians who fear top down cookbooks will find the advocates of evidence based medicine joining them at the barricades.

    Some fear that evidence based medicine will be hijacked by purchasers and managers to cut the costs of health care. This would not only be a misuse of evidence based medicine but suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of its financial consequences. Doctors practising evidence based medicine will identify and apply the most efficacious interventions to maximise the quality and quantity of life for individual patients; this may raise rather than lower the cost of their care.

    Evidence based medicine is not restricted to randomised trials and meta-analyses. It involves tracking down the best external evidence with which to answer our clinical questions. To find out about the accuracy of a diagnostic test, we need to find proper cross sectional studies of patients clinically suspected of harbouring the relevant disorder, not a randomised trial. For a question about prognosis, we need proper follow up studies of patients assembled at a uniform, early point in the clinical course of their disease. And sometimes the evidence we need will come from the basic sciences such as genetics or immunology. It is when asking questions about therapy that we should try to avoid the non-experimental approaches, since these routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy. Because the randomised trial, and especially the systematic review of several randomised trials, is so much more likely to inform us and so much less likely to mislead us, it has become the “gold standard” for judging whether a treatment does more good than harm. However, some questions about therapy do not require randomised trials (successful interventions for otherwise fatal conditions) or cannot wait for the trials to be conducted. And if no randomised trial has been carried out for our patient's predicament, we must follow the trail to the next best external evidence and work from there.

    Despite its ancient origins, evidence based medicine remains a relatively young discipline whose positive impacts are just beginning to be validated,12 13 and it will continue to evolve. This evolution will be enhanced as several undergraduate, postgraduate, and continuing medical education programmes adopt and adapt it to their learners' needs. These programmes, and their evaluation, will provide further information and understanding about what evidence based medicine is and is not.

    References

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