There is a need for empirical work comparing the random effects model with the fixed effects model in the calculation of a pooled relative risk in the meta-analysis in systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials. Such comparisons are particularly important when trial results are heterogeneous. We considered 84 independent meta-analyses in which each trial included a set of different women/newborns. These meta-analyses were included in systematic reviews published in the Cochrane Library's pregnancy and childbirth module. Twenty-one of these 84 meta-analyses demonstrated statistical heterogeneity at p<0.10. The random effects model estimates showed wider confidence intervals, particularly in those meta-analyses showing heterogeneity in the trial results. The summary relative risk for the random effects model tended to show a larger protective treatment effect than the fixed effects model in the heterogeneous meta-analyses. In this set of meta-analyses, statistical evaluation of publication bias cannot be shown to account for heterogeneity. Our empirical conclusion is that there may be opposing effects if the random effects model is used in the meta-analysis of clinical trials showing heterogeneity in the results: stronger treatment effects reflected in the summary relative risk, but wider confidence intervals about this summary measure.
Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.