Hierarchy of evidence: from case reports to randomized controlled trials

Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2003 Aug;(413):19-24. doi: 10.1097/01.blo.0000079323.41006.12.


In the hierarchy of research designs, the results of randomized controlled trials are considered the highest level of evidence. Randomization is the only method for controlling for known and unknown prognostic factors between two comparison groups. Lack of randomization predisposes a study to potentially important imbalances in baseline characteristics between two study groups. There is a hierarchy of evidence, with randomized controlled trials at the top, controlled observational studies in the middle, and uncontrolled studies and opinion at the bottom. This hierarchy has not been supported in two recent publications in the New England Journal of Medicine which identified nonsignificant differences in results between randomized, controlled trials, and observational studies. The current authors provide an approach to organizing published research on the basis of study design, a hierarchy of evidence, a set of principles and tools that help clinicians distinguish ignorance of evidence from real scientific uncertainty, distinguish evidence from unsubstantiated opinions, and ultimately provide better patient care.

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Medical Records
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design*