The World Health Organization (WHO), like many other organisations around the world, has recognised the need to use more rigorous processes to ensure that health care recommendations are informed by the best available research evidence. This is the last of a series of 16 reviews that have been prepared as background for advice from the WHO Advisory Committee on Health Research to WHO on how to achieve this.
We reviewed the literature on evaluating guidelines and recommendations, including their quality, whether they are likely to be up-to-date, and their implementation. We also considered the role of guideline developers in undertaking evaluations that are needed to inform recommendations.
We searched PubMed and three databases of methodological studies for existing systematic reviews and relevant methodological research. We did not conduct systematic reviews ourselves. Our conclusions are based on the available evidence, consideration of what WHO and other organisations are doing and logical arguments.
Key questions and answers
Our answers to these questions were informed by a review of instruments for evaluating guidelines, several studies of the need for updating guidelines, discussions of the pros and cons of different research designs for evaluating the implementation of guidelines, and consideration of the use of uncertainties identified in systematic reviews to set research priorities.
How should the quality of guidelines or recommendations be appraised?
• WHO should put into place processes to ensure that both internal and external review of guidelines is undertaken routinely.
• A checklist, such as the AGREE instrument, should be used.
• The checklist should be adapted and tested to ensure that it is suitable to the broad range of recommendations that WHO produces, including public health and health policy recommendations, and that it includes questions about equity and other items that are particularly important for WHO guidelines.
When should guidelines or recommendations be updated?
• Processes should be put into place to ensure that guidelines are monitored routinely to determine if they are in need of updating.
• People who are familiar with the topic, such as Cochrane review groups, should do focused, routine searches for new research that would require revision of the guideline.
• Periodic review of guidelines by experts not involved in developing the guidelines should also be considered.
• Consideration should be given to establishing guideline panels that are ongoing, to facilitate routine updating, with members serving fixed periods with a rotating membership.
How should the impact of guidelines or recommendations be evaluated?
• WHO headquarters and regional offices should support member states and those responsible for policy decisions and implementation to evaluate the impact of their decisions and actions by providing advice regarding impact assessment, practical support and coordination of efforts.
• Before-after evaluations should be used cautiously and when there are important uncertainties regarding the effects of a policy or its implementation, randomised evaluations should be used when possible.
What responsibility should WHO take for ensuring that important uncertainties are addressed by future research when the evidence needed to inform recommendations is lacking?
• Guideline panels should routinely identify important uncertainties and research priorities. This source of potential priorities for research should be used systematically to inform priority-setting processes for global research.