Rethinking Integrated Care: A Systematic Hermeneutic Review of the Literature on Integrated Care Strategies and Concepts

Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • Integrated care is best understood as an emergent set of practices intrinsically shaped by contextual factors, and not as a single intervention to achieve predetermined outcomes.
  • Policies to integrate care that facilitate person‐centered, relationship‐based care can potentially contribute to (but not determine) improved patient experiences.
  • There can be an association between improved patient experiences and system benefits, but these outcomes of integrated care are of different orders and do not necessarily align.
  • Policymakers should critically evaluate integrated care programs to identify and manage conflicts and tensions between a program’s aims and the context in which it is being introduced.

Context: Integrated care is a broad concept, used to describe a connected set of clinical, organizational, and policy changes aimed at improving service efficiency, patient experience, and outcomes. Despite examples of successful integrated care systems, evidence for consistent and reproducible benefits remains elusive. We sought to inform policy and practice by conducting a systematic hermeneutic review of literature covering integrated care strategies and concepts.

Methods: We used an emergent search strategy to identify 71 sources that considered what integrated care means and/or tested models of integrated care. Our analysis entailed (1) comparison of strategies and concepts of integrated care, (2) tracing common story lines across multiple sources, (3) developing a taxonomy of literature, and (4) generating a novel interpretation of the heterogeneous strategies and concepts of integrated care.

Findings: We identified four perspectives on integrated care: patients’ perspectives, organizational strategies and policies, conceptual models, and theoretical and critical analysis. We subdivided the strategies into four framings of how integrated care manifests and is understood to effect change. Common across empirical and conceptual work was a concern with unity in the face of fragmentation as well as the development and application of similar methods to achieve this unity. However, integrated care programs did not necessarily lead to the changes intended in experiences and outcomes. We attribute this gap between expectations and results, in part, to significant misalignment between the aspiration for unity underpinning conceptual models on the one hand and the multiplicity of practical application of strategies to integrate care on the other.

Conclusions: Those looking for universal answers to narrow questions about whether integrated care “works” are likely to remain disappointed. Models of integrated care need to be valued for their heuristic rather than predictive powers, and integration understood as emerging from particular as well as common contexts.

Keywords: integrated care, health systems, chronic care, hermeneutic review.

 

Open Access