Background: Systematic reviews based on the critical appraisal of observational and analytic studies on HIV prevalence and risk factors for HIV transmission among men having sex with men are very useful for health care decisions and planning. Such appraisal is particularly difficult, however, as the quality assessment tools available for use with observational and analytic studies are poorly established.
Methods: We reviewed the existing quality assessment tools for systematic reviews of observational studies and developed a concise quality assessment checklist to help standardise decisions regarding the quality of studies, with careful consideration of issues such as external and internal validity.
Results: A pilot version of the checklist was developed based on epidemiological principles, reviews of study designs, and existing checklists for the assessment of observational studies. The Quality Assessment Tool for Systematic Reviews of Observational Studies (QATSO) Score consists of five items: External validity (1 item), reporting (2 items), bias (1 item) and confounding factors (1 item). Expert opinions were sought and it was tested on manuscripts that fulfil the inclusion criteria of a systematic review. Like all assessment scales, QATSO may oversimplify and generalise information yet it is inclusive, simple and practical to use, and allows comparability between papers.
Conclusion: A specific tool that allows researchers to appraise and guide study quality of observational studies is developed and can be modified for similar studies in the future.