Study design and "evidence" in patient-oriented research

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2013 Jun 1;187(11):1167-72. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201303-0521OE.


Individual studies in patient-oriented research, whether described as "comparative effectiveness" or using other terms, are based on underlying methodological designs. A simple taxonomy of study designs includes randomized controlled trials on the one hand, and observational studies (such as case series, cohort studies, and case-control studies) on the other. A rigid hierarchy of these design types is a fairly recent phenomenon, promoted as a tenet of "evidence-based medicine," with randomized controlled trials receiving gold-standard status in terms of producing valid results. Although randomized trials have many strengths, and contribute substantially to the evidence base in clinical care, making presumptions about the quality of a study based solely on category of research design is unscientific. Both the limitations of randomized trials as well as the strengths of observational studies tend to be overlooked when a priori assumptions are made. This essay presents an argument in support of a more balanced approach to evaluating evidence, and discusses representative examples from the general medical as well as pulmonary and critical care literature. The simultaneous consideration of validity (whether results are correct "internally") and generalizability (how well results apply to "external" populations) is warranted in assessing whether a study's results are accurate for patients likely to receive the intervention-examining the intersection of clinical and methodological issues in what can be called a medicine-based evidence approach. Examination of cause-effect associations in patient-oriented research should recognize both the strengths and limitations of randomized trials as well as observational studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Studies*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / methods*
  • Humans
  • Research Design / standards*