We added 17 new trials to our previous review [6
], and synthesised the evidence from 41 RCTs of CCDSSs for PPC. Forty of 41 trials examined process of care for which the majority of CCDSSs, 25/40 (63%), were effective using a dichotomous measure of effect. Recent trials more often reported patient outcomes (14/41 (34%) versus 1/24 (4%) study in our 2005 review [6
]), but these outcomes were mostly surrogates (e.g
., cholesterol level) rather than major patient outcomes.
For CCDSSs showing positive effect, it is important to be cautious about ascribing positive effects solely to CCDSSs [79
] because most interventions included multiple components, such as educational sessions for clinicians and outreach to patients, and all trials were unblinded. For CCDSSs showing no effect, control-group clinicians often received training on the condition and recommended care. These 'educated' participants may have diluted intervention effects. Moreover, the reality of clinical practice, such as patients' varied adherence to recommendations, deficient follow-through by healthcare services, and long waiting lists for preventive care procedures [34
], may have reduced intervention effects. In short, interventions directed at provider behaviors are bound to have limited effect on actions that also require patient adherence and service support to realize such actions.
Our review found that CCDSSs for PPC rarely reported cost-effectiveness and harm assessments. Within the 6/41 (15%) RCTs reporting costs, the majority only performed cost comparisons of interventions, not cost-effectiveness analysis [80
]. Reporting was often incomplete, focused mainly on the CCDSS operating expenses, and varied substantially in methods of calculating costs and items included in analyses. There also was limited reporting on CCDSS-caused harm. The paucity of cost-effectiveness and harm analyses in PPC-related CCDSS studies is consistent with the current literature [9
Findings in this review may not be generalised to low- and middle-income countries because all included trials were conducted in high-income countries, the CCDSS costs and context-related data were incompletely reported, and many CCDSSs were integrated with electronic health records. These factors may hinder implementation or scaling up of CCDSSs in resource scarce settings, and it remains unclear if and how such settings might achieve similar benefits and at what costs. Moreover, patients' and organizational culture and values may influence implementation of CCDSSs' recommendations in different settings. That said, until CCDSSs show more reliable and substantial effects, delays in studies and implementation in resource-limited settings may be fortunate.
Our review endorsed the shift that trials of CCDSS have been making since 1976 [82
] from single university-based practices, with medical residents as users, small numbers of patients, and covering a few interventions, to multiple settings, used by physicians and multi-professional teams, encompassing larger numbers of patients with multiple health conditions and interventions. It also supported that assessment of patient outcomes [83
], associated costs, and safety have seen limited increases [6
Study strengths and limitations
We built on our previous review by including only RCTs published in any language, and using duplicate study identification, data abstraction, and study evaluation. Our current focus on RCTs provided a more scientifically robust estimate of CCDSS effectiveness, although the potential for publication bias was not assessed. We confirmed our abstractions with primary authors. We collaborated with clinical decision-makers in extracting and analyzing data, and formulating and disseminating findings. We considered the methodological rigor of trials. We could not use meta-analysis to pool effect sizes because included RCTs presented a considerable variety of systems and outcomes. The vote counting approach that we used to summarize study results does not take into account the size or quality of individual studies.
Our decision-maker partners indicated concerns regarding insufficient reporting on infrastructure and contextual factors in which CCDSSs were evaluated, including impact on clinician workflow and the interoperability across different systems. An assessment of available data across all studies in the review set (166 RCTs) is in progress.
Although trial methods improved over time, our review was hampered by the limitations of the primary studies. CCDSSs should target processes of care that have already been shown to be validly related to improved patient outcomes, but not all studies reported the validity of the targeted processes. In addition, most trials did not assess patient outcomes, and even the trials that did were too small to detect clinically important effects. Further, information on study duration was often missing, limiting our ability to assess sustainability of CCDSS effects.