Background: Plan–do–study–act (PDSA) cycles provide a structure for iterative testing of changes to improve quality of systems. The method is widely accepted in healthcare improvement; however there is little overarching evaluation of how the method is applied. This paper proposes a theoretical framework for assessing the quality of application of PDSA cycles and explores the consistency with which the method has been applied in peer-reviewed literature against this framework.
Methods: NHS Evidence and Cochrane databases were searched by three independent reviewers. Empirical studies were included that reported application of the PDSA method in healthcare. Application of PDSA cycles was assessed against key features of the method, including documentation characteristics, use of iterative cycles, prediction-based testing of change, initial small-scale testing and use of data over time.
Results: 73 of 409 individual articles identified met the inclusion criteria. Of the 73 articles, 47 documented PDSA cycles in sufficient detail for full analysis against the whole framework. Many of these studies reported application of the PDSA method that failed to accord with primary features of the method. Less than 20% (14/73) fully documented the application of a sequence of iterative cycles. Furthermore, a lack of adherence to the notion of small-scale change is apparent and only 15% (7/47) reported the use of quantitative data at monthly or more frequent data intervals to inform progression of cycles.
Discussion: To progress the development of the science of improvement, a greater understanding of the use of improvement methods, including PDSA, is essential to draw reliable conclusions about their effectiveness. This would be supported by the development of systematic and rigorous standards for the application and reporting of PDSAs.