Background: There is considerable debate as to the relative merits of using randomised controlled trial (RCT) data as opposed to observational data in systematic reviews of adverse effects. This meta-analysis of meta-analyses aimed to assess the level of agreement or disagreement in the estimates of harm derived from meta-analysis of RCTs as compared to meta-analysis of observational studies.
Methods and findings: Searches were carried out in ten databases in addition to reference checking, contacting experts, citation searches, and hand-searching key journals, conference proceedings, and Web sites. Studies were included where a pooled relative measure of an adverse effect (odds ratio or risk ratio) from RCTs could be directly compared, using the ratio of odds ratios, with the pooled estimate for the same adverse effect arising from observational studies. Nineteen studies, yielding 58 meta-analyses, were identified for inclusion. The pooled ratio of odds ratios of RCTs compared to observational studies was estimated to be 1.03 (95% confidence interval 0.93-1.15). There was less discrepancy with larger studies. The symmetric funnel plot suggests that there is no consistent difference between risk estimates from meta-analysis of RCT data and those from meta-analysis of observational studies. In almost all instances, the estimates of harm from meta-analyses of the different study designs had 95% confidence intervals that overlapped (54/58, 93%). In terms of statistical significance, in nearly two-thirds (37/58, 64%), the results agreed (both studies showing a significant increase or significant decrease or both showing no significant difference). In only one meta-analysis about one adverse effect was there opposing statistical significance.
Conclusions: Empirical evidence from this overview indicates that there is no difference on average in the risk estimate of adverse effects of an intervention derived from meta-analyses of RCTs and meta-analyses of observational studies. This suggests that systematic reviews of adverse effects should not be restricted to specific study types. Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.