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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews 3 Standards for Finding and Assessing Individual Studies Abstract: This chapter addresses the identification, screening, data collection, and appraisal of the individual studies that make up a systematic review’s (SR’s) body of evidence. The committee recommends six related standards. The search should be comprehensive and include both published and unpublished research. The potential for bias to enter the selection process is significant and well documented. Without appropriate measures to counter the biased reporting of primary evidence from clinical trials and observational studies, SRs will reflect and possibly exacerbate existing distortions in the biomedical literature. The review team should document the search process and keep track of the decisions that are made for each article. Quality assurance and control are critical during data collection and extraction because of the substantial potential for errors. At least two review team members, working independently, should screen and select studies and extract quantitative and other critical data from included studies. Each eligible study should be systematically appraised for risk of bias; relevance to the study’s populations, interventions, and outcomes measures; and fidelity of the implementation of the interventions. The search for evidence and critical assessment of the individual studies identified are the core of a systematic review (SR).
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews These SR steps require meticulous execution and documentation to minimize the risk of a biased synthesis of evidence. Current practice falls short of recommended guidance and thus results in a meaningful proportion of reviews that are of poor quality (Golder et al., 2008; Moher et al., 2007a; Yoshii et al., 2009). An extensive literature documents that many SRs provide scant, if any, documentation of their search and screening methods. SRs often fail to acknowledge or address the risk of reporting biases, neglect to appraise the quality of individual studies included in the review, and are subject to errors during data extraction and the meta-analysis (Cooper et al., 2006; Delaney et al., 2007; Edwards et al., 2002; Golder et al., 2008; Gøtzsche et al., 2007; Horton et al., 2010; Jones et al., 2005; Lundh et al., 2009; Moher et al., 2007a; Roundtree et al., 2008; Tramer et al., 1997). The conduct of the search for and selection of evidence may have serious implications for patients’ and clinicians’ decisions. An SR might lead to the wrong conclusions and, ultimately, the wrong clinical recommendations, if relevant data are missed, errors are uncorrected, or unreliable research is used (Dickersin, 1990; Dwan et al., 2008; Glanville et al., 2006; Gluud, 2006; Kirkham et al., 2010; Turner et al., 2008). In this chapter, the committee recommends methodological standards for the steps involved in identifying and assessing the individual studies that make up an SR’s body of evidence: planning and conducting the search for studies, screening and selecting studies, managing data collection from eligible studies, and assessing the quality of individual studies. The committee focused on steps to minimize bias and to promote scientifically rigorous SRs based on evidence (when available), expert guidance, and thoughtful reasoning. The recommended standards set a high bar that will be challenging for many SR teams. However, the available evidence does not suggest that it is safe to cut corners if resources are limited. These best practices should be thoughtfully considered by anyone conducting an SR. It is especially important that the SR is transparent in reporting what methods were used and why. Each standard consists of two parts: first, a brief statement describing the related SR step and, second, one or more elements of performance that are fundamental to carrying out the step. Box 3-1 lists all of the chapter’s recommended standards. Note that, as throughout this report, the chapter’s references to “expert guidance” refer to the published methodological advice of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Effective Health Care Program, the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD) (University of York), and the Cochrane Collaboration.
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews Appendix E contains a detailed summary of expert guidance on this chapter’s topics. THE SEARCH PROCESS When healthcare decision makers turn to SRs to learn the potential benefits and harms of alternative health care therapies, it is with the expectation that the SR will provide a complete picture of all that is known about an intervention. Research is relevant to individual decision making, whether it reveals benefits, harms, or lack of effectiveness of a health intervention. Thus, the overarching objective of the SR search for evidence is to identify all the studies (and all the relevant data from the studies) that may pertain to the research question and analytic framework. The task is a challenging one. Hundreds of thousands of research articles are indexed in bibliographic databases each year. Yet despite the enormous volume of published research, a substantial proportion of effectiveness data are never published or are not easy to access. For example, approximately 50 percent of studies appearing as conference abstracts are never fully published (Scherer et al., 2007), and some studies are not even reported as conference abstracts. Even when there are published reports of effectiveness studies, the studies often report only a subset of the relevant data. Furthermore, it is well documented that the data reported may not represent all the findings on an intervention’s effectiveness because of pervasive reporting bias in the biomedical literature. Moreover, crucial information from the studies is often difficult to locate because it is kept in researchers’ files, government agency records, or manufacturers’ proprietary records. The following overview further describes the context for the SR search process: the nature of the reporting bias in the biomedical literature; key sources of information on comparative effectiveness; and expert guidance on how to plan and conduct the search. The committee’s related standards are presented at the end of the section. Planning the Search The search strategy should be an integral component of the research protocol1 that specifies procedures for finding the evidence directly relevant to the SR. Items described in the protocol include, 1 See Chapter 2 for the committee’s recommended standards for establishing the research protocol.
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews BOX 3-1 Recommended Standards for Finding and Assessing Individual Studies Standard 3.1 Conduct a comprehensive systematic search for evidence Required elements: 3.1.1 Work with a librarian or other information specialist trained in performing systematic reviews (SRs) to plan the search strategy 3.1.2 Design the search strategy to address each key research question 3.1.3 Use an independent librarian or other information specialist to peer review the search strategy 3.1.4 Search bibliographic databases 3.1.5 Search citation indexes 3.1.6 Search literature cited by eligible studies 3.1.7 Update the search at intervals appropriate to the pace of generation of new information for the research question being addressed 3.1.8 Search subject-specific databases if other databases are unlikely to provide all relevant evidence 3.1.9 Search regional bibliographic databases if other databases are unlikely to provide all relevant evidence Standard 3.2 Take action to address potentially biased reporting of research results Required elements: 3.2.1 Search grey-literature databases, clinical trial registries, and other sources of unpublished information about studies 3.2.2 Invite researchers to clarify information related to study eligibility, study characteristics, and risk of bias 3.2.3 Invite all study sponsors to submit unpublished data, including unreported outcomes, for possible inclusion in the systematic review 3.2.4 Handsearch selected journals and conference abstracts 3.2.5 Conduct a web search 3.2.6 Search for studies reported in languages other than English if appropriate Standard 3.3 Screen and select studies Required elements: 3.3.1 Include or exclude studies based on the protocol’s pre-specified criteria
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews 3.3.2 Use observational studies in addition to randomized clinical trials to evaluate harms of interventions 3.3.3 Use two or more members of the review team, working independently, to screen and select studies 3.3.4 Train screeners using written documentation; test and retest screeners to improve accuracy and consistency 3.3.5 Use one of two strategies to select studies: (1) read all full-text articles identified in the search or (2) screen titles and abstracts of all articles and then read the full text of articles identified in initial screening. 3.3.6 Taking account of the risk of bias, consider using observational studies to address gaps in the evidence from randomized clinical trials on the benefits of interventions Standard 3.4 Document the search Required elements: 3.4.1 Provide a line-by-line description of the search strategy, including the date of every search for each database, web browser, etc. 3.4.2 Document the disposition of each report identified including reasons for their exclusion if appropriate Standard 3.5 Manage data collection Required elements: 3.5.1 At a minimum, use two or more researchers, working independently, to extract quantitative and other critical data from each study. For other types of data, one individual could extract the data while the second individual independently checks for accuracy and completeness. Establish a fair procedure for resolving discrepancies—do not simply give final decision-making power to the senior reviewer 3.5.2 Link publications from the same study to avoid including data from the same study more than once 3.5.3 Use standard data extraction forms developed for the specific systematic review 3.5.4 Pilot-test the data extraction forms and process Standard 3.6 Critically appraise each study Required elements: 3.6.1 Systematically assess the risk of bias, using predefined criteria 3.6.2 Assess the relevance of the study’s populations, interventions, and outcome measures 3.6.3 Assess the fidelity of the implementation of interventions
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews but are not limited to, the study question; the criteria for a study’s inclusion in the review (including language and year of report, publication status, and study design restrictions, if any); the databases, journals, and other sources to be searched for evidence; and the search strategy (e.g., sequence of database thesaurus terms, text words, methods of handsearching). Expertise in Searching A librarian or other qualified information specialist with training or experience in conducting SRs should work with the SR team to design the search strategy to ensure appropriate translation of the research question into search concepts, correct choice of Boolean operators and line numbers, appropriate translation of the search strategy for each database, relevant subject headings, and appropriate application and spelling of terms (Sampson and McGowan, 2006). The Cochrane Collaboration includes an Information Retrieval Methods Group2 that provides a valuable resource for information specialists seeking a professional group with learning opportunities. Expert guidance recommends that an experienced librarian or information specialist with training in SR search methods should also be involved in performing the search (CRD, 2009; Lefebvre et al., 2008; McGowan and Sampson, 2005; Relevo and Balshem, 2011). Navigating through the various sources of research data and publications is a complex task that requires experience with a wide range of bibliographic databases and electronic information sources, and substantial resources (CRD, 2009; Lefebvre et al., 2008; Relevo and Balshem, 2011). Ensuring an Accurate Search An analysis of SRs published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that 90.5 percent of the MEDLINE searches contained at least one search error (Sampson and McGowan, 2006). Errors included spelling errors, the omission of spelling variants and truncations, the use of incorrect Boolean operators and line numbers, inadequate translation of the search strategy for different databases, 2 For more information on the Cochrane Information Retrieval Methods Group, go to http://irmg.cochrane.org/.
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews misuse of MeSH3 and free-text terms, unwarranted explosion of MeSH terms, and redundancy in search terms. Common sense suggests that these errors affect the accuracy and overall quality of SRs. AHRQ and CRD SR experts recommend peer review of the electronic search strategy to identify and prevent these errors from occurring (CRD, 2009; Relevo and Balshem, 2011). The peer reviewer should be independent from the review team in order to provide an unbiased and scientifically rigorous review, and should have expertise in information retrieval and SRs. In addition, the peer review process should take place prior to the search process, rather than in conjunction with the peer review of the final report, because the search process will provide the data that are synthesized and analyzed in the SR. Sampson and colleagues (2009) recently surveyed individuals experienced in SR searching and identified aspects of the search process that experts agree are likely to have a large impact on the sensitivity and precision of a search: accurate translation of each research question into search concepts; correct choice of Boolean and proximity operators; absence of spelling errors; correct line numbers and combination of line numbers; accurate adaptation of the search strategy for each database; and inclusion of relevant subject headings. Then they developed practice guidelines for peer review of electronic search strategies. For example, to identify spelling errors in the search they recommended that long strings of terms be broken into discrete search statements in order to make null or misspelled terms more obvious and easier to detect. They also recommended cutting and pasting the search into a spell checker. As these guidelines and others are implemented, future research needs to be conducted to validate that peer review does improve the search quality. Reporting Bias Reporting biases (Song et al., 2010), particularly publication bias (Dickersin, 1990; Hopewell et al., 2009a) and selective reporting of trial outcomes and analyses (Chan et al., 2004a, 2004b; Dwan et al., 2008; Gluud, 2006; Hopewell et al., 2008; Turner et al., 2008; Vedula et al., 2009), present the greatest obstacle to obtaining a complete collection of relevant information on the effectiveness of healthcare interventions. Reporting biases have been identified across many health fields and interventions, including treatment, prevention, and diagnosis. For example, McGauran and colleagues (2010) identified 3 MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) is the National Library of Medicine’s controlled vocabulary thesaurus.
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews instances of reporting bias spanning 40 indications and 50 different pharmacological, surgical, diagnostic, and preventive interventions and selective reporting of study data as well as efforts by manufacturers to suppress publication. Furthermore, the potential for reporting bias exists across the entire research continuum—from before completion of the study (e.g., investigators’ decisions to register a trial or to report only a selection of trial outcomes), to reporting in conference abstracts, selection of a journal for submission, and submission of the manuscript to a journal or other resource, to editorial review and acceptance. The following describes the various ways in which reporting of research findings may be biased. Table 3-1 provides definitions of the types of reporting biases. Publication Bias The term publication bias refers to the likelihood that publication of research findings depends on the nature and direction of TABLE 3-1 Types of Reporting Biases Type of Reporting Bias Definition Publication bias The publication or nonpublication of research findings, depending on the nature and direction of the results Selective outcome reporting bias The selective reporting of some outcomes but not others, depending on the nature and direction of the results Time-lag bias The rapid or delayed publication of research findings, depending on the nature and direction of the results Location bias The publication of research findings in journals with different ease of access or levels of indexing in standard databases, depending on the nature and direction of results. Language bias The publication of research findings in a particular language, depending on the nature and direction of the results Multiple (duplicate) publications The multiple or singular publication of research findings, depending on the nature and direction of the results Citation bias The citation or noncitation of research findings, depending on the nature and direction of the results SOURCE: Sterne et al. (2008).
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews a study’s results. More than two decades of research have shown that positive findings are more likely to be published than null or negative results. At least four SRs have assessed the association between study results and publication of findings (Song et al., 2009). These investigations plus additional individual studies indicate a strong association between statistically significant or positive results and likelihood of publication (Dickersin and Chalmers, 2010). Investigators (not journal editors) are believed to be the major reason for failure to publish research findings (Dickersin and Min, 1993; Dickersin et al., 1992). Studies examining the influence of editors on acceptance of submitted manuscripts have not found an association between results and publication (Dickersin et al., 2007; Lynch et al., 2007; Okike et al., 2008; Olson et al., 2002). Selective Outcome Reporting Bias To avert problems introduced by post hoc selection of study outcomes, a randomized controlled trial’s (RCT’s) primary outcome should be stated in the research protocol a priori, before the study begins (Kirkham et al., 2010). Statistical testing of the effect of an intervention on multiple possible outcomes in a study can lead to a greater probability of statistically significant results obtained by chance. When primary or other outcomes of a study are selected and reported post hoc (i.e., after statistical testing), the reader should be aware that the published results for the “primary outcome” may be only a subset of relevant findings, and may be selectively reported because they are statistically significant. Outcome reporting bias refers to the selective reporting of some outcomes but not others because of the nature and direction of the results. This can happen when investigators rely on hypothesis testing to prioritize research based on the statistical significance of an association. In the extreme, if only positive outcomes are selectively reported, we would not know that an intervention is ineffective for an important outcome, even if it had been tested frequently (Chan and Altman, 2005; Chan et al., 2004a,b; Dwan et al., 2008; Turner et al., 2008; Vedula et al., 2009). Recent research on selective outcome reporting bias has focused on industry-funded trials, in part because internal company documents may be available, and in part because of evidence of biased reporting that favors their test interventions (Golder and Loke, 2008; Jorgensen et al., 2008; Lexchin et al., 2003; Nassir Ghaemi et al., 2008; Ross et al., 2009; Sismondo 2008; Vedula et al., 2009).
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews Mathieu and colleagues (2009) found substantial evidence of selective outcome reporting. The researchers reviewed 323 RCTs with results published in high-impact journals in 2008. They found that only 147 had been registered before the end of the trial with the primary outcome specified. Of these 147, 46 (31 percent) were published with different primary outcomes than were registered, with 22 introducing a new primary outcome. In 23 of the 46 discrepancies, the influence of the discrepancy could not be determined. Among the remaining 23 discrepancies, 19 favored a statistically significant result (i.e. a new statistically significant primary outcome was introduced in the published article or a nonsignificant primary outcome was omitted or not defined as primary in the published article). In a study of 100 trials published in high-impact journals between September 2006 and February 2007 and also registered in a trial registry, Ewart and colleagues found that in 34 cases (31 percent) the primary outcome had changed (10 by addition of a new primary outcome; 3 by promotion from a secondary outcome; 20 by deletion of a primary outcome; and 6 by demotion to a secondary outcome); and in 77 cases (70 percent) the secondary outcome changed (54 by addition of a new secondary outcome; 5 by demotion from a primary outcome; 48 by deletion; 3 by promotion to a primary outcome) (Ewart et al., 2009). Acquiring unpublished data from industry can be challenging. However, when available, unpublished data can change an SR’s conclusions about the benefits and harms of treatment. A review by Eyding and colleagues demonstrates both the challenge of acquiring all relevant data from a manufacturer and how acquisition of those data can change the conclusion of an SR (Eyding et al., 2010). In their SR, which included both published and unpublished data acquired from the drug manufacturer, Eyding and colleagues found that published data overestimated the benefit of the antidepressant reboxetine over placebo by up to 115 percent and over selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) by up to 23 percent. The addition of unpublished data changed the superiority of reboxetine vs. placebo to a nonsignificant difference and the nonsignificant difference between reboxetine and SSRIs to inferiority for reboxetine. For patients with adverse events and rates of withdrawals from adverse events inclusion of unpublished data changed nonsignificant difference between reboxetine and placebo to inferiority of reboxetine; while for rates of withdrawals for adverse events inclusion of unpublished data changed the nonsignificant difference between reboxetine and fluoxetine to an inferiority of fluoxetine.
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Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews Although there are many studies documenting the problem of publication bias and selective outcome reporting bias, few studies have examined the effect of such bias on SR findings. One recent study by Kirkham and colleagues assessed the impact of outcome reporting bias in individual trials on 81 SRs published in 2006 and 2007 by Cochrane review groups (Kirkham et al., 2010). More than one third of the reviews (34 percent) included at least one RCT with suspected outcome reporting bias. The authors assessed the potential impact of the bias and found that meta-analyses omitting trials with presumed selective outcome reporting for the primary outcome could overestimate the treatment effect. They also concluded that trials should not be excluded from SRs simply because outcome data appear to be missing when in fact the missing data may be due to selective outcome reporting. The authors suggest that in such cases the trialists should be asked to provide the outcome data that were analyzed, but not reported. Time-lag Bias In an SR of the literature, Hopewell and her colleagues (2009a) found that trials with positive results (statistically significant in favor of the experimental arm) were published about a year sooner than trials with null or negative results (not statistically significant or statistically significant in favor of the control arm). This has implications for both systematic review teams and patients. If positive findings are more likely to be available during the search process, then SRs may provide a biased view of current knowledge. The limited evidence available implies that publication delays may be caused by the investigator rather than by journal editors (Dickersin et al., 2002b; Ioannidis et al., 1997, 1998). Location Bias The location of published research findings in journals with different ease of access or levels of indexing is also correlated with the nature and direction of results. For example, in a Cochrane methodology review, Hopewell and colleagues identified five studies that assessed the impact of including trials published in the grey literature in an SR (Hopewell et al., 2009a). The studies found that trials in the published literature tend to be larger and show an overall larger treatment effect than those trials found in the grey literature (primarily abstracts and unpublished data, such as data from trial registries, “file drawer data,” and data from individual trialists).
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