Background Evidence-based guidelines potentially improve healthcare. However, their de-novo-development requires substantial resources - especially for complex conditions, and adaptation may be biased by contextually influenced recommendations in source guidelines. In this paper we describe a new approach to guideline development - the systematic guideline review method (SGR), and its application in the development of an evidence-based guideline for family physicians on chronic heart failure (CHF). Methods A systematic search for guidelines was carried out. Evidence-based guidelines on CHF management in adults in ambulatory care published in English or German between the years 2000 and 2004 were included. Guidelines on acute or right heart failure were excluded. Eligibility was assessed by two reviewers, methodological quality of selected guidelines was appraised using the AGREE-instrument, and a framework of relevant clinical questions for diagnostics and treatment was derived. Data were extracted into evidence tables, systematically compared by means of a consistency analysis and synthesized in a preliminary draft. Most relevant primary sources were re-assessed to verify the cited evidence. Evidence and recommendations were summarized in a draft guideline. Results Of 16 included guidelines five were of good quality. A total of 35 recommendations were systematically compared: 25/35 were consistent, 9/35 inconsistent, and 1/35 unratable (derived from a single guideline). Of the 25 consistencies, 14 based on consensus, seven on evidence and four differed in grading. Major inconsistencies were found in 3/9 of the inconsistent recommendations. We re-evaluated the evidence for 17 recommendations (evidence-based, differing evidence levels and minor inconsistencies) the majority was congruent. Incongruencies were found, where the stated evidence could not be verified in the cited primary sources, or where the evaluation in the source guidelines focused on treatment benefits and underestimated the risks. The draft guideline was completed in 8.5 man-months. The main limitation to this study was the lack of a second reviewer. Conclusions The systematic guideline review including framework development, consistency analysis and validation is an effective, valid, and resource saving-approach to the development of evidence-based guidelines
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