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Evidence-Based Practice and Nursing Theory

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Evelyn M. Wills

Melanie McEwen

Helen Soderstrom was stricken with changes in her vision, disturbances of gait, and occasional periods of severe fatigue during her senior year of nursing school. She experienced intermittent periods of normality as well as illness, and the periods when she had no symptoms lasted many months. During a time when her symptoms were unusually active, she sought medical help, and her physician determined that her symptoms were related to stress. Despite the periods of weakness and fatigue, she was able to complete the nursing program and graduated with honors.

During Helen’s first year of practice, she experienced two periods of symptom exacerbation, but each was short-lived. With full insurance, she was able to see a neurologist who concluded that she was experiencing the beginning stages of a neuromuscular disease. Because there was no “cure,” the neurologist worked with Helen to find interventions that helped her manage the symptoms when they became problematic.

After a few years in practice, Helen enrolled in a graduate program to work toward a career in nursing education. During her first year of graduate studies, she seldom experienced neurologic symptoms, but during her practice teaching course, they returned.

The recurrence of symptoms, along with a new understanding of evidence-based practice from her graduate courses, led Helen to make her personal health experience the topic of her final paper. To learn more, she sought resources that would help her gain better control of the neuromuscular symptoms as well as assist her in her studies. To that end, she contacted her University’s neuroscience department and joined a research team. As she learned more about EBP, she considered what system she would use to develop guidelines on symptom management and selected the Iowa Model because of its extensive use in research.

The idea of evidence-based practice (EBP) was introduced in the 1970s by Dr. Archie Cochrane, an Englishman who wrote a dynamic book questioning the efficacy of non–research-based practices in medicine (Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2011). In particular, Dr. Cochrane emphasized the critical review of research, largely focusing on randomized control trials (RCTs) to support medical practice. His influence eventually led to development of the Cochrane Collaboration, an organization charged with developing, maintaining, and updating systematic reviews of health care interventions (Cochrane Collaboration, 2013). Although the notion of EBP was somewhat delayed in being recognized and implemented in nursing, over the past two decades, EBP has appeared with increasing frequency in the nursing literature and now has essentially become the standard for research-based, informed decision making for nursing care.

EBP is similar to research-based practice and has been called an approach to problem solving that conscientiously uses the current “best” evidence in the care of patients (LoBiondo-Wood & Haber, 2010). EBP involves identifying a clinical problem, searching the literature, critically evaluating the research evidence, and determining appropriate interventions. Nursing scholars note that EBP relies on integrating research, theory, and practice and is equivalent to theory-based practice as the objective of both is the highest level of safety and efficacy for patients (Fawcett & Garity, 2009).

Overview of Evidence-Based Practice

The concept of EBP is widely accepted as a requisite in health care. EBP is based on the premise that health professionals should not center practice on tradition and belief but on sound information grounded in research findings and scientific development (Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2011; Schmidt & Brown, 2012). Until the early part of the 21st century, the concept of EBP was more common in Canadian and English nursing literature than in U.S. nursing literature. Over the last decade, however, the term has become ubiquitous. This is attributed in part to the guideline initiatives of the Agency for Health Care Quality, the Institute of Medicine, and the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, among others (Hudson, Duke, Haas, & Varnell, 2008; Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2011).

Many nursing scholars (DiCenso, Guyatt, & Ciliska, 2005; Ingersoll, 2000; LoBiondo-Wood & Haber, 2010; Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2011; Rycroft-Malone, 2004) have pointed out that EBP and research are not synonymous. They are both scholarly processes but focus on different phases of knowledge development—application versus discovery. In general, EBP refers to the integration of individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. It is largely based on research studies, particularly studies using clinical trials, meta-analysis, and studies of client outcomes, and it is more likely to be applied in practice settings that value the use of new knowledge and in settings that provide resources to access that knowledge.

Definition and Characteristics of Evidence-Based Practice

In medicine, EBP has been defined as the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of the current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients (Sackett, Straus, Richardson, Rosenberg, & Haynes, 2000). It is an approach to health care practice in which the clinician is aware of the evidence that relates to clinical practice and the strength of that evidence (Jennings & Loan, 2001; Tod, Palfreyman, & Burke, 2004).

To distinguish nursing from medicine in discussing EBP, a number of definitions have been presented in the literature. Sigma Theta Tau International (2005, para. 4) defined “evidence-based nursing” as “an integration of the best evidence available, nursing expertise, and the values and preferences of the individuals, families, and communities who are served.” Similarly, DiCenso and colleagues (2005) defined EBP as “the integration of best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values to facilitate clinical decision making” (p. 4). Both of these definitions use similar terms (e.g., best evidence, expertise, patient values). Ingersoll (2000) used slightly different terms when she suggested that evidence-based nursing practice “is the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of theory-derived, research-based information in making decisions about care delivery to individuals or groups of patients and in consideration of individual needs and preferences” (p. 152).

In nursing, EBP generally includes careful review of research findings according to guidelines that nurse scholars have used to measure the merit of a study or group of studies. Evidence-based nursing de-emphasizes ritual, isolated, and unsystematic clinical experiences; ungrounded opinions; and tradition as a basis for practice and stresses the use of research findings. Other measures or factors, including nursing expertise, health resources, patient/family preferences, quality improvement efforts, and the consensus of recognized experts, are also incorporated as appropriate (Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2011; Schmidt & Brown, 2012).

In summary, EBP has several critical features. First, it is a problem-based approach and considers the context of the practitioner’s current experience. In addition, EBP brings together the best available evidence and current practice by combining research with tacit knowledge and theory. Third, it incorporates values, beliefs, and desires of the patients and their families. Finally, EBP facilitates the application of research findings by incorporating first- and second-hand knowledge into practice.

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