Background: Evidence-informed planning and interpretation of research results both require standardised description of local care delivery context. Such context analysis descriptions should be comparable across regions and countries to allow benchmarking and organizational learning, and for research findings to be interpreted in context. The European Service Mapping Schedule (ESMS) is a classification of adult mental health services that was later adapted for the assessment of health and social systems research (Description and Evaluation of Services and DirectoriEs - DESDE). The aim of the study was to review the diffusion and use of the ESMS/DESDE system in health and social care and its impact in health policy and decision-making. Method: We conducted a systematic review following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines (1997–2018). Results: Out of 155 papers mentioning ESMS/DESDE, 71 have used it for service research and planning. The classification has been translated into eight languages and has been used by seven international research networks. Since 2000, it has originated 11 instruments for health system research with extensive analysis of their metric properties. The ESMS/DESDE coding system has been used in 585 catchment areas in 34 countries for description of services delivery at local, regional and national levels. Conclusions: The ESMS/DESDE system provides a common terminology, a classification of care services, and a set of tools allowing a variety of aims to be addressed in healthcare and health systems research. It facilitates comparisons across and within countries for evidence-informed planning.