Open Access Open Badges Research article

The concept and definition of therapeutic inertia in hypertension in primary care: a qualitative systematic review

Jean-Pierre Lebeau1*, Jean-Sébastien Cadwallader1, Isabelle Aubin-Auger2, Alain Mercier3, Thomas Pasquet1, Emmanuel Rusch4, Kristin Hendrickx5 and Etienne Vermeire56

Author Affiliations

1 Department of General Practice, EES, University of Tours, 10 Boulevard Tonnellé, BP 3223, 37032 Tours, Cedex 1, France

2 Department of General Practice, University Paris Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité, France

3 Department of General Practice, University of Rouen, Rouen, France

4 Department of Public Health, EES, University of Tours, Tours, France

5 Department of Primary and Interdisciplinary Care, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium

6 Department of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium

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BMC Family Practice 2014, 15:130  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-15-130

Published: 2 July 2014



Therapeutic inertia has been defined as the failure of health-care provider to initiate or intensify therapy when therapeutic goals are not reached. It is regarded as a major cause of uncontrolled hypertension. The exploration of its causes and the interventions to reduce it are plagued by unclear conceptualizations and hypothesized mechanisms. We therefore systematically searched the literature for definitions and discussions on the concept of therapeutic inertia in hypertension in primary care, to try and form an operational definition.


A systematic review of all types of publications related to clinical inertia in hypertension was performed. Medline, EMbase, PsycInfo, the Cochrane library and databases, BDSP, CRD and NGC were searched from the start of their databases to June 2013. Articles were selected independently by two authors on the basis of their conceptual content, without other eligibility criteria or formal quality appraisal. Qualitative data were extracted independently by two teams of authors. Data were analyzed using a constant comparative qualitative method.


The final selection included 89 articles. 112 codes were grouped in 4 categories: terms and definitions (semantics), “who” (physician, patient or system), “how and why” (mechanisms and reasons), and “appropriateness”. Regarding each of these categories, a number of contradictory assertions were found, most of them relying on little or no empirical data. Overall, the limits of what should be considered as inertia were not clear. A number of authors insisted that what was considered deleterious inertia might in fact be appropriate care, depending on the situation.


Our data analysis revealed a major lack of conceptualization of therapeutic inertia in hypertension and important discrepancies regarding its possible causes, mechanisms and outcomes. The concept should be split in two parts: appropriate inaction and inappropriate inertia. The development of consensual and operational definitions relying on empirical data and the exploration of the intimate mechanisms that underlie these behaviors are now needed.

Hypertension; Primary care; Quality of health care; Systematic review; Therapeutic inertia