Background: Cochrane systematic reviews collate and summarise studies of the effects of healthcare interventions. The characteristics of these reviews and the meta-analyses and individual studies they contain provide insights into the nature of healthcare research and important context for the development of relevant statistical and other methods.
Methods: We classified every meta-analysis with at least two studies in every review in the January 2008 issue of the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) according to the medical specialty, the types of interventions being compared and the type of outcome. We provide descriptive statistics for numbers of meta-analyses, numbers of component studies and sample sizes of component studies, broken down by these categories.
Results: We included 2321 reviews containing 22,453 meta-analyses, which themselves consist of data from 112,600 individual studies (which may appear in more than one meta-analysis). Meta-analyses in the areas of gynaecology, pregnancy and childbirth (21%), mental health (13%) and respiratory diseases (13%) are well represented in the CDSR. Most meta-analyses address drugs, either with a control or placebo group (37%) or in a comparison with another drug (25%). The median number of meta-analyses per review is six (inter-quartile range 3 to 12). The median number of studies included in the meta-analyses with at least two studies is three (inter-quartile range 2 to 6). Sample sizes of individual studies range from 2 to 1,242,071, with a median of 91 participants.
Discussion: It is clear that the numbers of studies eligible for meta-analyses are typically very small for all medical areas, outcomes and interventions covered by Cochrane reviews. This highlights the particular importance of suitable methods for the meta-analysis of small data sets. There was little variation in number of studies per meta-analysis across medical areas, across outcome data types or across types of interventions being compared.