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Reorganisation of healthcare services into networks of clinical experts is increasing as a strategy to promote the uptake of evidence based practice and to improve patient care. This is reflected in significant financial investment in clinical networks. However, there is still some question as to whether clinical networks are effective vehicles for quality improvement. The aim of this systematic review was to ascertain the effectiveness of clinical networks and identify how successful networks improve quality of care and patient outcomes.


A systematic search was undertaken in accordance with the PRISMA approach in Medline, Embase, CINAHL and PubMed for relevant papers between 1 January 1996 and 30 September 2014. Established protocols were used separately to examine and assess the evidence from quantitative and qualitative primary studies and then integrate findings.


A total of 22 eligible studies (9 quantitative; 13 qualitative) were included. Of the quantitative studies, seven focused on improving quality of care and two focused on improving patient outcomes. Quantitative studies were limited by a lack of rigorous experimental design. The evidence indicates that clinical networks can be effective vehicles for quality improvement in service delivery and patient outcomes across a range of clinical disciplines. However, there was variability in the networks’ ability to make meaningful network- or system-wide change in more complex processes such as those requiring intensive professional education or more comprehensive redesign of care pathways. Findings from qualitative studies indicated networks that had a positive impact on quality of care and patients outcomes were those that had adequate resources, credible leadership and efficient management coupled with effective communication strategies and collaborative trusting relationships.


There is evidence that clinical networks can improve the delivery of healthcare though there are few high quality quantitative studies of their effectiveness. Our findings can provide policymakers with some insight into how to successfully plan and implement clinical networks by ensuring strong clinical leadership, an inclusive organisational culture, adequate resourcing and localised decision-making authority.

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Open Access Journal Article

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Open Access