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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Decision tools in health care: focus on the problem, not the solution

Joseph Liu12*, Jeremy C Wyatt3 and Douglas G Altman1

Author Affiliations

1 Cancer Research UK/NHS Centre for Statistics in Medicine, Wolfson College, Oxford University, UK

2 BHF Health Promotion Research Group, Department of Public Health, Oxford University, UK

3 Health Informatics Centre, Dundee University, UK

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2006, 6:4  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-6-4

Published: 20 January 2006



Systematic reviews or randomised-controlled trials usually help to establish the effectiveness of drugs and other health technologies, but are rarely sufficient by themselves to ensure actual clinical use of the technology. The process from innovation to routine clinical use is complex. Numerous computerised decision support systems (DSS) have been developed, but many fail to be taken up into actual use. Some developers construct technologically advanced systems with little relevance to the real world. Others did not determine whether a clinical need exists. With NHS investing £5 billion in computer systems, also occurring in other countries, there is an urgent need to shift from a technology-driven approach to one that identifies and employs the most cost-effective method to manage knowledge, regardless of the technology. The generic term, 'decision tool' (DT), is therefore suggested to demonstrate that these aids, which seem different technically, are conceptually the same from a clinical viewpoint.


Many computerised DSSs failed for various reasons, for example, they were not based on best available knowledge; there was insufficient emphasis on their need for high quality clinical data; their development was technology-led; or evaluation methods were misapplied. We argue that DSSs and other computer-based, paper-based and even mechanical decision aids are members of a wider family of decision tools. A DT is an active knowledge resource that uses patient data to generate case specific advice, which supports decision making about individual patients by health professionals, the patients themselves or others concerned about them. The identification of DTs as a consistent and important category of health technology should encourage the sharing of lessons between DT developers and users and reduce the frequency of decision tool projects focusing only on technology. The focus of evaluation should become more clinical, with the impact of computer-based DTs being evaluated against other computer, paper- or mechanical tools, to identify the most cost effective tool for each clinical problem.


We suggested the generic term 'decision tool' to demonstrate that decision-making aids, such as computerised DSSs, paper algorithms, and reminders are conceptually the same, so the methods to evaluate them should be the same.