Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to systematically apply theory of organisational routines to standardised care pathways. The explanatory power of routines is used to address open questions in the care pathway literature about their coordinating and organising role, the way they change and can be replicated, the way they are influenced by the organisation and the way they influence health care professionals. Design/methodology/approach – Theory of routines is systematically applied to care pathways in order to develop theoretically derived propositions. Findings – Care pathways mirror routines by being recurrent, collective and embedded and specific to an organisation. In particular, care pathways resemble standard operating procedures that can give rise to recurrent collective action patterns. In all, 11 propositions related to five categories are proposed by building on these insights: care pathways and coordination, change, replication, the organisation and health care professionals. Research limitations/implications – The paper is conceptual and uses care pathways as illustrative instances of hospital routines. The propositions provide a starting point for empirical research. Practical implications – The analysis highlights implications that health care professionals and managers have to consider in relation to coordination, change, replication, the way the organisation influences care pathways and the way care pathways influence health care professionals. Originality/value – Theory on organisational routines offers fundamental, yet unexplored, insights into hospital processes, including in particular care coordination.