While in primary studies the investigators select and collect data from individual patients, in systematic reviews the investigators select and collect data from primary studies. While primary studies include analyses of their participants, Cochrane reviews contain analyses of the primary studies. Analyses may be narrative, such as a structured summary and discussion of the studies’ characteristics and findings, or quantitative, that is involving statistical analysis. Meta-analysis – the statistical combination of results from two or more separate studies – is the most commonly used statistical technique. Cochrane review writing software (RevMan) can perform a variety of meta-analyses, but it must be stressed that meta-analysis is not appropriate in all Cochrane reviews. Issues to consider when deciding whether a meta-analysis is appropriate in a review are discussed in this section and in Section 9.1.4.
Studies comparing healthcare interventions, notably randomized trials, use the outcomes of participants to compare the effects of different interventions. Meta-analyses focus on pair-wise comparisons of interventions, such as an experimental intervention versus a control intervention, or the comparison of two experimental interventions. The terminology used here (experimental versus control interventions) implies the former, although the methods apply equally to the latter.
The contrast between the outcomes of two groups treated differently is known as the ‘effect’, the ‘treatment effect’ or the ‘intervention effect’.Whether analysis of included studies is narrative or quantitative, a general framework for synthesis may be provided by considering four questions:
What is the direction of effect?
What is the size of effect?
Is the effect consistent across studies?
What is the strength of evidence for the effect?
Meta-analysis provides a statistical method for questions 1 to 3.Assessment of question 4 relies additionally on judgements based on assessments of study design and risk of bias, as well as statistical measures of uncertainty.
Narrative synthesis uses subjective (rather than statistical) methods to follow through questions 1 to 4, for reviews where meta-analysis is either not feasible or not sensible.In a narrative synthesis the method used for each stage should be pre-specified, justified and followed systematically. Bias may be introduced if the results of one study are inappropriately stressed over those of another.
The analysis plan follows from the scientific aim of the review.Reviews have different types of aims, and may therefore contain different approaches to analysis.
The most straightforward Cochrane review assembles studies that make one particular comparison between two treatment options, for example, comparing kava extract versus placebo for treating anxiety (Pittler 2003).Meta-analysis and related techniques can be used if there is a consistent outcome measure to:
establish whether there is evidence of an effect;
estimate the size of the effect and the uncertainty surrounding that size; and
investigate whether the effect is consistent across studies.
Some reviews may have a broader focus than a single comparison. The first is where the intention is to identify and collate studies of numerous interventions for the same disease or condition. An example of such a review is that of topical treatments for fungal infections of the skin and nails of the foot, which included studies of any topical treatment (Crawford 2007). The second, related aim is that of identifying a ‘best’ intervention. A review of interventions for emergency contraception sought that which was most effective (while also considering potential adverse effects). Such reviews may include multiple comparisons and meta-analyses between all possible pairs of treatments, and require care when it comes to planning analyses (see Section 9.1.6 and Chapter 16, Section 16.6).
Occasionally review comparisons have particularly wide scopes that make the use of meta-analysis problematic. For example, a review of workplace interventions for smoking cessation covered diverse types of interventions (Moher 2005). When reviews contain very diverse studies a meta-analysis might be useful to answer the overall question of whether there is evidence that, for example, work-based interventions can work (but see Section 9.1.4). But use of meta-analysis to describe the size of effect may not be meaningful if the implementations are so diverse that an effect estimate cannot be interpreted in any specific context.
An aim of some reviews is to investigate the relationship between the size of an effect and some characteristic(s) of the studies. This is uncommon as a primary aim in Cochrane reviews, but may be a secondary aim. For example, in a review of beclomethasone versus placebo for chronic asthma, there was interest in whether the administered dose of beclomethasone affected its efficacy (Adams 2005). Such investigations of heterogeneity need to be undertaken with care (see Section ).