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Systematic Reviews: Home

What is a Systematic Review?

  • Systematic reviews have increasingly replaced traditional narrative reviews and expert commentaries as a way of summarising research evidence.
  • Systematic reviews attempt to bring the same level of rigour to reviewing research evidence as should be used in producing that research evidence in the first place.
  • Systematic reviews should be based on a peer-reviewed protocol so that they can be replicated if necessary.
  • High quality systematic reviews seek to:
    • Identify all relevant published and unpublished evidence
    • Select studies or reports for inclusion
    • Assess the quality of each study or report
    • Synthesise the findings from individual studies or reports in an unbiased way
    • Interpret the findings and present a balanced and impartial summary of the findings with due consideration of any flaws in the evidence.
  • Many high quality peer-reviewed systematic reviews are available in journals as well as from databases and other electronic sources.
  • Systematic reviews may examine quantitative or qualitative evidence;put simply, when the two or more types of evidence are examined within one review it is called a mixed-method systematic review.
  • Systematic reviewing techniques are in a period of rapid development.Many systematic reviews still look at clinical effectiveness, but methods now exist to enable reviewers to examine issues of appropriateness,feasibility and meaningfulness.
  • Not all published systematic reviews have been produced with meticulous care; therefore, the findings may sometimes mislead.Interrogating published reports by asking a series of questions can uncover deficiencies.

Credit: Hemingway, P., & Brereton, N. (2009). What is a systematic review. What is, 1-8.

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

A systematic review summarises the results of available carefully designed healthcare studies (controlled trials) and provides a high level of evidence on the effectiveness of healthcare interventions. Judgments may be made about the evidence and inform recommendations for healthcare.

These reviews are complicated and depend largely on what clinical trials are available, how they were carried out (the quality of the trials) and the health outcomes that were measured. Review authors pool numerical data about effects of the treatment through a process called meta-analyses. Then authors assess the evidence for any benefits or harms from those treatments. In this way, systematic reviews are able to summarise the existing clinical research on a topic.

The review plan

Review authors set about their task very methodically following, step by step, an advance plan called a protocol. The protocol describes the steps that will be followed when preparing a review. Cochrane protocols are published in the Cochrane Library so that people can provide comments to improve them before the actual review has been conducted.  A protocol describes:

  • the way existing studies are found;
  • how the relevant studies are judged in terms of their usefulness in answering the review question;
  • how the results of the separate studies are brought together to give an overall measure of effectiveness (benefits and harms) - statistical techniques used to combine the results are called meta-analysis.

The review question

The purpose of the review is generally stated as: To assess the effects of [intervention or comparison] for [health problem] in [types of people, disease or problem], and healthcare setting if appropriate. The parts of the review question are often referred to as ‘PICO’ (Participants, Interventions, Comparisons and Outcomes). The included studies generally randomly assign participants to the intervention under investigation or the control or comparative intervention. 

The review title

Titles of Cochrane reviews also have a set layout: Intervention for problem in a disease or population, and sometimes an outcome. An example is:  Surgical excision margins for primary cutaneous melanoma. This is a statement of the types of population (participants in controlled clinical studies), types of interventions (and what they are compared to, even if it is no treatment), and the types of outcomes that are of interest.

Cochrane Handbook of Systematic Reviews  of Interventions (Version 6, September 2018)

Credit: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

Searching the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

Cochrane SA Webinar: Developing a search strategy for systematic reviews

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Stefka Tzanova
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