Canadian-led guideline improves health research around the world, but more work required

May 24, 2016

A decade after cataloguing the abysmal state of systematic reviews of health research and creating the PRISMA guideline to improve things, Dr. David Moher and his colleagues have found that things have improved but more work is required.

“Systematic reviews are meant to rigorously gather and summarize all relevant studies on a particular health question to come up with the best possible answer,” said Dr. Moher, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “They are crucial for helping clinicians, patients and policy-makers keep up with the hundreds of thousands of new and often conflicting studies published every year.”

Dr. Moher’s new study, published in PLOS Medicine, shows that seven of 15 key quality measures for reviews significantly improved from 2004 to 2014 (the other eight showed no significant change). For example, in 2004, only 48 percent of systematic reviews gave reasons for excluding certain studies, whereas in 2014, 70 percent did. Mentioning the PRISMA statement and affiliation with Cochrane were also associated with higher quality reviews.

However, the researchers also found that at least a third of the reviews in 2014 did not report how the reviewers searched for studies or how they assessed study quality. Unpublished data was only sought in seven percent of reviews and at least a third used poor statistical methods.

“It’s encouraging that systematic reviews are improving in some respects, but there is much more work to be done,” said Dr. Matthew Page, research fellow at Monash University, who led the project. “There should be a concerted effort to develop software to improve the reporting of systematic reviews and provide better training for health researchers and journal editors.”

Funding: This study was funded by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health. The authors are supported by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the National Institute of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Generalitat Valenciana, the Brazilian Ministry of Education, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation and the University of Ottawa.

Full reference: Page MJ, Shamseer L, Altman DG, Tetzlaff J, Sampson M, Tricco AC, et al. (2016) Epidemiology and Reporting Characteristics of Systematic Reviews of Biomedical Research: A Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS Med 13(5): e1002028. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002028

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Disease and research area tags: Journalology