Summarizing systematic reviews: methodological development, conduct and reporting of an umbrella review approach

Int J Evid Based Healthc. 2015 Sep;13(3):132-40. doi: 10.1097/XEB.0000000000000055.


Aims: With the increase in the number of systematic reviews available, a logical next step to provide decision makers in healthcare with the evidence they require has been the conduct of reviews of existing systematic reviews. Syntheses of existing systematic reviews are referred to by many different names, one of which is an umbrella review. An umbrella review allows the findings of reviews relevant to a review question to be compared and contrasted. An umbrella review's most characteristic feature is that this type of evidence synthesis only considers for inclusion the highest level of evidence, namely other systematic reviews and meta-analyses. A methodology working group was formed by the Joanna Briggs Institute to develop methodological guidance for the conduct of an umbrella review, including diverse types of evidence, both quantitative and qualitative. The aim of this study is to describe the development and guidance for the conduct of an umbrella review.

Methods: Discussion and testing of the elements of methods for the conduct of an umbrella review were held over a 6-month period by members of a methodology working group. The working group comprised six participants who corresponded via teleconference, e-mail and face-to-face meeting during this development period. In October 2013, the methodology was presented in a workshop at the Joanna Briggs Institute Convention. Workshop participants, review authors and methodologists provided further testing, critique and feedback on the proposed methodology.

Results: This study describes the methodology and methods developed for the conduct of an umbrella review that includes published systematic reviews and meta-analyses as the analytical unit of the review. Details are provided regarding the essential elements of an umbrella review, including presentation of the review question in a Population, Intervention, Comparator, Outcome format, nuances of the inclusion criteria and search strategy. A critical appraisal tool with 10 questions to help assess risk of bias in systematic reviews and meta-analyses was also developed and tested. Relevant details to extract from included reviews and how to best present the findings of both quantitative and qualitative systematic reviews in a reader friendly format are provided.

Conclusions: Umbrella reviews provide a ready means for decision makers in healthcare to gain a clear understanding of a broad topic area. The umbrella review methodology described here is the first to consider reviews that report other than quantitative evidence derived from randomized controlled trials. The methodology includes an easy to use and informative summary of evidence table to readily provide decision makers with the available, highest level of evidence relevant to the question posed.

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Empirical Research
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / organization & administration*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / standards
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*
  • Research Design / standards*
  • Review Literature as Topic*
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic*