Instrumental variables for implementation science: exploring context-dependent causal pathways between implementation strategies and evidence-based interventions

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Background: The impact of both implementation strategies (IS) and evidence-based interventions (EBI) can vary across contexts, and a better understanding of how and why this occurs presents fundamental but challenging questions that implementation science as a field will need to grapple with. We use causal epidemiologic methods to explore the mechanisms of why sharp distinctions between implementation strategies (IS) and efficacy of an evidence-based intervention (EBI) may fail to recognize that the effect of an EBI can be deeply intertwined and dependent on the context of the IS leading to its uptake. Methods: We explore the use of instrumental variable (IV) analyses as a critical tool for implementation science methods to isolate three relevant quantities within the same intervention context when exposure to an implementation strategy is random: (1) the effect of an IS on implementation outcomes (e.g., uptake), (2) effect of EBI uptake on patient outcomes, and (3) overall effectiveness of the IS (i.e., ~ implementation*efficacy). We discuss the mechanisms by which an implementation strategy can alter the context, and therefore effect, of an EBI using the underlying IV assumptions. We illustrate these concepts using examples of the implementation of new ART initiation guidelines in Zambia and community-based masking programs in Bangladesh. Results: Causal questions relevant to implementation science are answered at each stage of an IV analysis. The first stage assesses the effect of the IS (e.g., new guidelines) on EBI uptake (e.g., same-day treatment initiation). The second stage leverages the IS as an IV to estimate the complier average causal effect (CACE) of the EBI on patient outcomes (e.g., effect of same-day treatment initiation on viral suppression). The underlying assumptions of CACE formalize that the causal effect of EBI may differ in the context of a different IS because (1) the mechanisms by which individuals uptake an intervention may differ and (2) the subgroup of individuals who take up an EBI may differ. IV methods thus provide a conceptual framework for how IS and EBIs are linked and that the IS itself needs to be considered a critical contextual determinant. Moreover, it also provides rigorous methodologic tools to isolate the effect of an IS, EBI, and combined effect of the IS and EBI. Discussion: Leveraging IV methods when exposure to an implementation strategy is random helps to conceptualize the context-dependent nature of implementation strategies, EBIs, and patient outcomes. IV methods formalize that the causal effect of an EBI may be specific to the context of the implementation strategy used to promote uptake. This integration of implementation science concepts and theory with rigorous causal epidemiologic methods yields novel insights and provides important tools for exploring the next generation of questions related to mechanisms and context in implementation science.

Original languageEnglish
Article number157
JournalImplementation Science Communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Causal pathways
  • Implementation mechanisms
  • Implementation science
  • Instrumental variables
  • Intervention uptake
  • Mediators


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