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Printed educational materials directed at Ontario family physicians do not improve adherence to guideline recommendations for diabetes management: a pragmatic, factorial, cluster randomized controlled trial

Howie AH, Klar N, Nash DM, Reid JN, Zwarenstein M. BMC Fam Pract. 2021; 22(1):243. Epub 2021; Dec 11. DOI:

Background — Printed educational materials (PEMs) have long been used to inform clinicians on evidence-based practices. However, the evidence for their effects on patient care and outcomes is unclear. In Ontario, despite widely available clinical practice guidelines recommending antihypertensives and cholesterol-lowering agents for patients with diabetes, prescriptions remain low. We aimed to determine whether PEMs can influence physicians to intensify prescribing of these medications.

Methods — A pragmatic, 2 × 2 factorial, cluster randomized controlled trial was designed to ascertain the effect of two PEM formats on physician prescribing: a postcard-sized message ("outsert") or a longer narrative article ("insert"). Ontario family physician practices (clusters) were randomly allocated to receive the insert, outsert, both or neither. Physicians were eligible if they were in active practice and their patients were included if they were over 65 years with a diabetes diagnosis; both were unaware of the trial. Administrative databases at ICES (formerly the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences) were used to link patients to their physician and to analyse prescribing patterns at baseline and 1 year following PEM mailout. The primary outcome was intensification defined as the addition of a new antihypertensive or cholesterol-lowering agent, or dose increase of a current drug, measured at the patient level. Analyses were by intention-to-treat and accounted for the clustering of patients to physicians.

Results — We randomly assigned 4231 practices (39% of Ontario family physicians) with a total population of 185,526 patients (20% of patients with diabetes in Ontario primary care) to receive the insert, outsert, both, and neither; among these, 4118 practices were analysed (n = 1025, n = 1037, n = 1031, n = 1025, respectively). No significant treatment effect was found for the outsert (odds ratio (OR) 1.01, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.98 to 1.04) or the insert (OR 0.99, 95% CI 0.96 to 1.02). Percent of intensification in the four arms was similar (approximately 46%). Adjustment for physician characteristics (e.g., age, sex, practice location) had no impact on these findings.

Conclusions — PEMs have no effect on physician's adherence to recommendations for the management of diabetes-related complications in Ontario. Further research should investigate the effect of other strategies to narrow this evidence-to-practice gap.

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