Patients with multiple comorbid conditions are very frequently encountered in clinical practice. However, our results suggest that evidence-based guidelines on four relatively prevalent chronic diseases may have limited applicability to patients with comorbid conditions. Most of these guidelines do not provide explicit guidance on treatment of patients with specific combinations of diseases. If comorbidity is addressed in the guidelines, it is often discussed in general; few specific treatment recommendations for patients with comorbid conditions are provided, particularly for discordant combinations. Moreover, the evidence supporting the available comorbidity-related recommendations was generally limited, had moderate to poor quality, and was often not adequately translated into the guidelines.
Among the guidelines in our study that included specific comorbidity-related recommendations, these recommendations were more likely to focus on concordant comorbidities with related treatment plans. We also found that none of the comorbidity-related recommendations specified the preferred action for patients with more than one concurrent condition. These results are consistent with previous American 
and Australian 
studies showing that guidelines pay little attention to patients with discordant comorbidities and to patients with multiple chronic conditions. This lack of attention contributes to limiting the applicability of single disease guidelines on patients with chronic diseases as almost one third of them have three or more conditions 
An important finding of our study is the limited evidence base that supports comorbidity-related recommendations. If specific recommendations for patients with comorbidity are provided, they are often based on limited evidence that is of moderate or poor quality. In addition, the supporting evidence rarely focuses directly on the groups of patients with comorbid conditions. Furthermore, the limitations of this evidence are not usually described in the guidelines. The failure to describe limitations of evidence in a guideline could give clinicians misplaced confidence in guideline recommendations.
Consistent with previous studies, our findings indicate that the evidence base for patients with multiple chronic conditions is limited 
. The lack of evidence specific to comorbid conditions may explain the limited attention to comorbidity in the guidelines we studied. If future clinical trials included patients with comorbid conditions, at least for the most common combination of diseases and report the results, this would provide the evidence base that clinical guideline developers need 
In light of the general absence of research evidence on patients with multiple conditions, guidelines should be more explicit about the applicability of their recommendations to patients with the most prevalent comorbid conditions and discuss the quality and directness of the evidence for these patients. This explicit approach should replace the implicit assumption that guideline recommendations are applicable to patients with comorbid conditions unless conflicting evidence is available 
Our findings indicate that no systematic approach is used by guideline development groups for addressing comorbidity in guidelines. Compared to the guidelines on COPD, depressive disorder, and osteoarthritis, the guidelines on diabetes mellitus type 2 had better reporting of issues of comorbidity. Even for guidelines on the same condition, we found large variation between guidelines in the approach to addressing comorbidity. This applies to all levels of abstraction (guideline, recommendation, evidence). A previous study comparing diabetes guidelines from different countries, also found much variation in the supporting evidence, whereas the recommendations were similar 
. It would be helpful to develop guidance, as part of a handbook or manual for guideline developers 
to facilitate and support this process and to create more uniformity. In addition, targeting educational activities to professional societies that do not yet incorporate comorbidity to a large extent in their guidelines might be useful.
The main strength of our study is that we systematically assessed the content of an international sample of evidence-based national and international guidelines in terms of addressing comorbidity. The guidelines included in our study are among the best in the clinical areas of interest and were produced by prominent governmental agencies or professional organizations. Furthermore, by simultaneously assessing the underlying evidence of the comorbidity-related recommendations, we were able to determine whether guidance was provided on treatment of patients with comorbid conditions and also to what extent this guidance was based on high-quality evidence.
Our study has several limitations. First, a limited number of chronic conditions were included in our study. Inclusion of a different set of chronic conditions could have yielded different results. However, we do not expect guidelines on other diseases to be more applicable to patients with multiple conditions than those for the included common conditions. Second, the number of selected guidelines varied between the conditions, with an overrepresentation of diabetes guidelines. This reflects the available number of high-quality guidelines on the selected diseases in the databases. Third, we did not assess all available comorbidity-related evidence for the included chronic conditions, but only the evidence that was described in the guidelines. A systematic search for evidence would be necessary to determine whether the guideline recommendations are based on the best available evidence. Future research on the selected conditions could be useful to draw firm conclusions on the availability of evidence for patients with multiple conditions, complementing the findings of our study.
Among a selected set of high-quality current evidence-based guidelines on prevalent chronic diseases, there is limited guidance on treatment of patients with comorbid conditions. Although the issue of comorbidity is recognized by guidelines, very few specific recommendations are provided and these are generally based on limited evidence of low or moderate quality. The supporting evidence often does not focus directly on groups of patients with comorbid conditions and it is rare that guidelines adequately describe the limitations of the evidence. Given the increasing prevalence of patients with multiple chronic diseases, guidelines should at least be explicit and transparent about the applicability of their recommendations to populations of patients with the most common combination of diseases. A guide for guideline developers could facilitate a systematic and uniform approach.