Introduction and Overview of Evidence Based Practice

Original Editor - Wanda van Niekerk based on the course by Benita Olivier

Top Contributors - Wanda van Niekerk and Jess Bell  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Evidence-based practice (EBP) is an integral part of healthcare and has become a key part of clinical training, research and rehabilitation practices. It is a problem-based approach where research evidence is applied to clinical reasoning and decision-making.[1] Clinicians need to integrate multiple information snippets and pieces to be able to make a clinical decision. Clinicians are excellent at gathering information from patients or their families and from the specific setting that they work in. However, evidence from research is also key to informing practice and decision-making. Each element of the evidence-based practice model is important - it is imperative to realise that these concepts are to be applied together rather than divided into parts or categories to justify a clinical decision.[1]

History of Evidence-Based Practice[edit | edit source]

Below is a short timeline of how evidence-based practice developed[2]:

  • 1025 – the Persian healer Avicenna started to quantify disease and evaluate treatment methods.
  • Early 1700s – physicians in France and England started to link clusters of symptoms with specific medical conditions by observing patients with specific symptoms (this was the start of epidemiology and differential diagnoses).
  • 1941 – pioneer physician, Archibald Cochrane, highlighted the need to be able to distinguish between treatments that are helpful from those which may do more harm, as well as the importance of being empathetic and caring healthcare providers.
  • 1970s and 1980s – teachers in the medical programme at McMaster University in Canada realised it was impossible to teach medical students everything they needed to know. Instead, they started to focus on teaching students how to find what they needed to know – the start of evidence-based practice.[1]

If you would like to read more, please see: Evidence-Based Medicine: A short history of a modern medical movement[3]

Examples of past medical practices that were harmful and unscientific and those that were (and still are) lifesaving are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Examples of past medical practices
Past medical practices that were harmful and unscientific Past medical practices that are lifesaving
  • trepanation
  • bloodletting
  • use of mercury
  • use of radium
  • arsenic used to treat psoriasis, eczema, leukaemia
  • use of heroin as a cough medicine
  • clearing the air
  • discovery of penicillin and antibiotics
  • organ transplants
  • vaccines
  • anaesthesia
  • medical imaging
  • antiviral drugs
  • stem cell therapy
  • immunotherapy

What is Evidence-Based Practice?[edit | edit source]

In 1996, Sackett et al.[4] defined evidence-based practice as “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence-based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.”[4]

There was a need to include research knowledge as part of the clinical decision-making process. However, this is also one of the big criticisms of evidence-based practice - i.e. it seemed that research was given more emphasis than patient preferences and circumstances. We really must understand that research is one part of several influences that shape the decision-making model.[5] A later definition from Sackett et al. describes evidence-based practice as "the integration of best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values.”[2]

The initial model of evidence-based practice included three overlapping domains[4]:

  • clinical expertise
  • research evidence
  • patient preferences

Haynes et al.[5][6] adapted and further developed the evidence-based practice model into four overlapping parts:

  • the client’s clinical state and circumstances
  • the best relevant research evidence
  • the client’s values and preferences
  • clinical expertise is the golden thread or cement that holds the model together[2]

In this model, research is key, but it does not outweigh any of the other domains. The patient or client is also actively engaged in the decision-making process.[2]

Drisko and Grady[2] provide a simple yet clear summary of evidence-based practice:

"EBP refers to a practice decision-making process.”[2]

The definition of evidence-based practice has evolved over time. Along with the integration of research, clinical expertise and patient values and circumstances, it is also necessary for the healthcare professional "to consider characteristics of the local and broader practice context.”[1] Thus, it is not only about the research but also about the skills, education and experience of a clinician as well as the patient and their values, circumstances, preferences and clinical status. Furthermore, the clinician needs to consider the availability of resources, policies, and cultural and socioeconomic factors in the decision-making process. Hoffman et al.[1] explain this eloquently: “This requires judgment and artistry, as well as science and logic.” This whole process of integrating all these factors is known as clinical reasoning. When a healthcare professional is able to integrate all these domains to make decisions about the care of a patient, evidence-based practice is applied.[1]


What Did We Rely on Before Evidence-Based Practice?[edit | edit source]

  • Experience
  • Expertise of colleagues who were older and "better" or more experienced
  • Education - i.e what we were taught during our studies

However, these sources of information can be flawed, outdated and can introduce bias.[1] So while clinical experience is a core element in the evidence-based practice model, we can't rely on it exclusively. It is better to use our clinical experience together with the other components of this model when making decisions. This is the clinical reasoning process.[1]

Why is Evidence-Based Practice Important?[edit | edit source]

Reasons supporting the use of evidence-based practice[1]:

  • helps healthcare professionals and patients make an evidence-based decision on what the best treatment or decision is for a specific patient at a specific point in time.
  • patients provide healthcare professionals with a lot of information about their illness, injury or general health. Clinicians need to be able to 1) assess the accuracy of this information, 2) determine if a specific intervention is suitable for the specific patient, and 3) work with the patient if they buy into this decision.
  • evidence-based practice cultivates an inquisitive attitude in healthcare providers (Why am I doing it this way? Is there evidence that may help me do this in a more efficient way?).
  • evidence-based practice plays a role in professional accountability – as healthcare professionals we have the responsibility to provide services that are informed by the best available research whenever possible.
  • funding health services – evidence-based practice helps with wise usage of health resources, and evidence is considered when making decisions (e.g., if there is quality evidence that a specific treatment is harmful or ineffective, resources should not be wasted by providing this treatment.)

Goals of Evidence-based Practice[edit | edit source]

The overall goals of evidence-based practice are:

  • increase the number of helpful interventions[2]
  • reduce the use of harmless interventions that are ineffective[2]
  • eliminate harmful interventions that do not lead to improvement and cause other harm[2]
  • ensure interventions are cost-effective (to reduce costs)[2][8]
  • reduce variations in practice[8]
  • enhance the quality of care[8]
  • improve patient outcomes[8]

Application of Evidence-Based Practice from Different Perspectives[edit | edit source]

Evidence-based practice can be applied from different perspectives in the following ways[9]:

  • clinical decision-making process – selecting the best available intervention for a patient[10]
  • diagnostic processes – assessing the reliability and validity of measurement tools and outcomes
  • selecting preventative interventions
  • determining the aetiology of diseases and conditions
  • determining the prognosis of diseases or conditions
  • determining policies and procedures and administration of healthcare services

Criticism of Evidence-Based Practice[edit | edit source]

Evidence-based practice has received criticism, such as[1]:

  • it is too reliant on quantitative research:
    • response to this: qualitative research is important, especially in learning how individuals manage and perceive their health or condition. There is a rise in the number of mixed-method research papers that focus on both quantitative and qualitative approaches.
  • there is limited research available in certain areas:
    • response to this: although there is limited evidence regarding some clinical questions, the best available evidence should be sought out. In these cases, clinical experience and patient perspectives should be given more emphasis.
  • the amount of research evidence is overwhelming[11][12]:
    • response to this: using the pyramid of evidence-based information to guide you and developing critical appraisal skills will help healthcare professionals navigate this area.
  • large randomised controlled trials often over-emphasise and focus on achieving small gains:[11]
    • response to this: both the benefits and harms of interventions should be considered. In addition, we should not only focus on statistical significance, but also, on the clinical significance and patient perspective.
  • clinicians (often newly qualified or inexperienced clinicians) may diligently follow the available evidence, rules and algorithms and not consider the patient's perspective[11]:
    • response to this: "Proper practice of EBP is not about following the rules." Clinical reasoning and judgement are an integral part of evidence-based practice, as is the consideration of patient preferences. Shared-decision decision-making is key in this process.

Barriers to Evidence-Based Practice[edit | edit source]

Some barriers to evidence-based practice are related to[13]:

  • organisational context
    • lack of time
    • lack of access
    • lack of support
  • education
    • language skills
    • lack of research skills
    • lack of statistical analysis skills
  • personal behaviour
    • lack of interest
  • limitations of evidence-based practice
    • lack of generalisability of research

Patient, Client, Consumer, Survivor or Other in Healthcare Settings?[edit | edit source]

With the shift towards a patient-centred model of healthcare, a debate has been sparked about the terminology to describe “patients”. The term "patient" may imply a "passive individual awaiting treatment" whereas terms such as "client", "consumer", and "customer" may be more empowering and create a sense of equality between all participants involved in the decision-making process with regard to healthcare.[14]

Costa et al.[14] reported that, on the whole, healthcare recipients prefer the term patient, with few liking the term consumer. This indicates that the continued use of the term patient is acceptable when there is insufficient knowledge about an individual’s preferences. This can be applied to clinical and research settings. They also concluded that preference is often determined by[14]:

  • familiarity
  • social identity
  • context of the role (specific healthcare setting)

However, these findings require further research. Read the scoping review here: Patient, client, consumer, survivor or other alternatives? A scoping review of preferred terms for labelling individuals who access healthcare across settings.[14]

Knowledge Translation in Rehabilitation[edit | edit source]

Knowledge translation is defined as "a dynamic and iterative process involving professionals and patients in the synthesis, dissemination, exchange and ethical application of knowledge to improve health through the development of tools, guides, practical recommendations, and decision-making algorithms."[15] Knowledge translation strategies are crucial in supporting evidence-based practice with the goal to decrease the gap between research, evidence and clinical practice. With advances in science, clinicians have access to evidence that can help with factors such as prevention, rehabilitation outcomes and the quality of life of patients. However, it takes about 17 years for research evidence to make its way into clinical practice.[16] Rehabilitation professionals need to know how to generate, share and apply knowledge. Knowledge translation and evidence-based practice are necessary in research and clinical practice to create value for rehabilitation and provide a culture of quality rehabilitation for all.[17]

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Hoffmann T, Bennett S, Del Mar C. Evidence-based practice across the health professions. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2023.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Drisko JW, Grady MD. Evidence-based practice in clinical social work. Springer; 2019.
  3. Zimerman AL. Evidence-based medicine: a short history of a modern medical movement. AMA Journal of Ethics. 2013 Jan 1;15(1):71-6.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Gray JM, Haynes RB, Richardson WS. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn't. Bmj. 1996 Jan 13;312(7023):71-2.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Haynes RB, Devereaux PJ, Guyatt GH. Physicians' and patients' choices in evidence based practice: Evidence does not make decisions, people do. Bmj. 2002 Jun 8;324(7350):1350.
  6. Haynes RB, Devereaux PJ, Guyatt GH. Clinical expertise in the era of evidence-based medicine and patient choice. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. 2002 Mar 1;7(2):36-8.
  7. James McCormack. Viva La Evidence. Available from:[last accessed 13/10/2023]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Connor L, Dean J, McNett M, Tydings DM, Shrout A, Gorsuch PF, Hole A, Moore L, Brown R, Melnyk BM, Gallagher‐Ford L. Evidence‐based practice improves patient outcomes and healthcare system return on investment: Findings from a scoping review. Worldviews on Evidence‐Based Nursing. 2023 Feb;20(1):6-15.
  9. Olivier, B. Introduction and Overview of Evidence-Based Practice Course. Plus. 2023
  10. Garcia J, Copley J, Turpin M, Bennett S, McBryde C, McCosker JL. Evidence‐based practice and clinical reasoning in occupational therapy: A cross‐sectional survey in Chile. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal. 2021 Apr;68(2):169-79.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Greenhalgh T, Howick J, Maskrey N. Evidence based medicine: a movement in crisis?. Bmj. 2014 Jun 13;348.
  12. Kerr H, Rainey D. Addressing the current challenges of adopting evidence-based practice in nursing. British Journal of Nursing. 2021 Sep 9;30(16):970-4.
  13. Paci M, Faedda G, Ugolini A, Pellicciari L. Barriers to evidence-based practice implementation in physiotherapy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal for Quality in Health Care. 2021 Jun 1;33(2):mzab093.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Costa DS, Mercieca-Bebber R, Tesson S, Seidler Z, Lopez AL. Patient, client, consumer, survivor or other alternatives? A scoping review of preferred terms for labelling individuals who access healthcare across settings. BMJ open. 2019 Mar 1;9(3):e025166.
  15. Regalado IC, Lindquist AR, Cardoso R, Longo E, Lencucha R, Hunt M, Thomas A, Bussières A, Boruff JT, Shikako K. Knowledge translation in rehabilitation settings in low, lower-middle and upper-middle-income countries: a scoping review. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2023 Jan 16;45(2):376-90.
  16. Chambers CT. From evidence to influence: dissemination and implementation of scientific knowledge for improved pain research and management. Pain. 2018 Sep 1;159:S56-64.
  17. Moore JL, Shikako-Thomas K, Backus D. Knowledge translation in rehabilitation: a shared vision. Pediatric Physical Therapy. 2017 Jul 1;29:S64-72.