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Member Research and Reports

Primary Care Providers May Struggle to Find High-Quality Evidence to Support Clinical Decisions, UGA Study Finds

As medicine continues to shift toward evidence-based practice, some primary care providers may have a difficult time finding quality evidence to support their clinical decisions, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

[Photo: Dr. Mark Ebell]

An analysis of 721 topics from an online, evidence-based medical reference for generalists showed that only 18 percent of the clinical recommendations were based on high-quality, patient-oriented evidence.

This finding highlights the need for more research in primary care and family medicine, says Dr. Mark Ebell, epidemiology professor at UGA’s College of Public Health and lead author on the study.

“The research done in the primary care setting, which is where most outpatients are seen, is woefully underfunded,” he said, “and that’s part of the reason why there’s such a large number of recommendations that are not based on the highest level of evidence.”

The lack of funding stands in contrast to the use of primary care across the healthcare system. According to the Centers for Disease Control, primary care visits account for over half of physician’s office visits in the U.S.  Moreover, primary care physicians care for the occasional cough or fever, but also bear the brunt for chronic disease management.

High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol often fall on a primary care provider’s plate, and there are many different approaches to treatment. Therefore, it’s essential, says Ebell, to understand which approach “has the greatest chance of providing benefit and minimizing harm, and the only way to truly know that is from well-designed studies.”

Ebell and his co-authors identified areas of care supported by high-quality studies and others that are not. Topics related to pregnancy and childbirth, cardiovascular health, and psychiatry had the highest percentage of recommendations backed by research-based evidence.  Hematological, musculoskeletal and rheumatological, and poisoning and toxicity topics had the lowest percentage.

About half of the recommendations overall were based on studies measuring patient-oriented health outcomes, such as quality of life, improved symptoms and lower death rates, rather than laboratory or surrogate markers that may not translate into improved health for the patient.

Filling in the gaps for evidence-based, patient-oriented primary care research should matter to patients as well as their health care providers, says Ebell. “You would want your care to be guided by studies that have demonstrated that what the physician recommends will help you live better or longer. We should all want that kind of information to guide care.”

The Evidence Based Medicine study is available online at http://ebm.bmj.com/content/22/3/88.long