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Sources of practice variations in cardiology - The influence of clinical context, cost, physicians’ perceptions and practice considerations

Veena Manja, Gordon Guyatt, Sandra Monteiro, Susan Jack, Satyanarayana Lakshminrusimha, John You


Background: Practice variation is common and may represent variation in values and preferences in the setting of limited evidence regarding optimal care or indicate deficiencies in care. 

Methods: We administered a case-based survey to cardiologists in the United States and Canada. Participants selected their preferred management option and then rated the influence of 7 factors (safety, effectiveness, patient-centered care, efficiency, local hospital practice, medicolegal concerns and prior experience) on their decision using a scale of 1 (unimportant) to 7 (critically important). Follow-up questions explored knowledge and attitudes on healthcare costs. The relationship between management choice and perceived influence of each factor was examined using repeated measures ANOVA. Free text comments were analyzed using basic content analysis.

Results: One hundred and six cardiologists completed the survey. Respondents rated safety (5.8), effectiveness (5.7) and patient-centered care (5.7) as important determinants irrespective of their management choice. Cardiologists frequently (range 19%-87%) chose options not recommended by clinical practice guidelines (CPG), with individual cardiologists sometimes choosing guideline-suggested options and sometimes not. Differences in ratings of factors between those who chose guideline-suggested options and those who did not varied based on the case. Respondents considered cost to be important in decision-making; however, they did not feel well informed and, consequently, seldom discussed this with patients.

Conclusion: Cardiologists rate evidence-based practice as an important factor influencing their decision-making whether or not they make CPG-concordant choices. Sources of practice variation include case-context, local hospital practice and medicolegal concerns. Implementation strategies to improve high value patient-centered care should consider physicians’ perceptions of effectiveness of the management options. Successful strategies to improve patient-centered care will require engagement from physicians, particularly to understand how best to support their ability to counsel and involve patients when choosing treatment options and considering cost in these decisions. A deeper understanding of practice variation and its implications will require use of qualitative methods.


Cardiology, clinical context, clinical decision-making, clinical practice guidelines, evidence-based medicine, healthcare costs, high value care, management options, patient-centered care, person-centered healthcare, practice variations

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