19 December 2010

Real world reviews: a beginner’s guide to undertaking systematic reviews of public health policy interventions

Very interesting article  in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on undertaking useful systematic reviews when time and resources are limited.

My Favourite Quotes:

Systematic reviews are interested in locating and synthesising the ‘best available evidence’(not all available evidence); this means that the hierarchy of
evidence does need to be applied albeit in a pragmatic way. 

‘Pragmatist’ systematic reviews therefore focus on a handful of ‘first-line’ health and social science databases, or supplement this with the use of a subject specialist one, while ‘purist’ systematic reviews have tended to search every available and potentially relevant electronic database.

The systematic review is becoming an increasingly popular and established research method in public health. Obtaining systematic review skills are therefore becoming a common requirement for most public health researchers and practitioners. However, most researchers still remain apprehensive about conducting their first systematic review. This is often because an ‘ideal’ type of systematic review is promoted in the methods literature.

This brief guide is intended to help dispel these concerns by providing an accessible overview of a ‘real’ approach to conducting systematic reviews. The guide draws upon an extensive practical experience of conducting various types of systematic reviews of complex social interventions.

The paper discusses what a systematic review is and how definitions vary. It describes the stages of a review in simple terms. It then draws on case study reviews to reflect on five key practical aspects of the conduct of the method, outlining debates and potential ways to make the method shorter and smarterdenhancing the speed of production of systematic reviews and reducing labour intensity while still maintaining high methodological standards.

There are clear advantages in conducting the high quality pragmatic reviews that this guide has described: (1) time and labour resources are saved; (2) it enables reviewers to inform or respond to developments in policy and practice in a timelier manner; and (3) it encourages researchers to conduct systematic reviews before embarking on primary research. Well-conducted systematic reviews remain a valuable part of the public health methodological tool box.