The objectives of this paper are to provide an introduction to meta-analysis and to discuss the rationale for this type of research and other general considerations. Methods used to produce a rigorous meta-analysis are highlighted and some aspects of presentation and interpretation of meta-analysis are discussed.Meta-analysis is a quantitative, formal, epidemiological study design used to systematically assess previous research studies to derive conclusions about that body of research. Outcomes from a meta-analysis may include a more precise estimate of the effect of treatment or risk factor for disease, or other outcomes, than any individual study contributing to the pooled analysis. The examination of variability or heterogeneity in study results is also a critical outcome. The benefits of meta-analysis include a consolidated and quantitative review of a large, and often complex, sometimes apparently conflicting, body of literature. The specification of the outcome and hypotheses that are tested is critical to the conduct of meta-analyses, as is a sensitive literature search. A failure to identify the majority of existing studies can lead to erroneous conclusions; however, there are methods of examining data to identify the potential for studies to be missing; for example, by the use of funnel plots. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses are useful tools in evidence-based medicine. The need to integrate findings from many studies ensures that meta-analytic research is desirable and the large body of research now generated makes the conduct of this research feasible.
Keywords: bias; evidence-based medicine; meta-analysis; quality; randomized clinical trial; systematic review.