High statistical heterogeneity is more frequent in meta-analysis of continuous than binary outcomes

J Clin Epidemiol. 2016 Feb:70:129-35. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2015.09.005. Epub 2015 Sep 18.


Objectives: We compared the distribution of heterogeneity in meta-analyses of binary and continuous outcomes.

Study design and setting: We searched citations in MEDLINE and Cochrane databases for meta-analyses of randomized trials published in 2012 that reported a measure of heterogeneity of either binary or continuous outcomes. Two reviewers independently performed eligibility screening and data abstraction. We evaluated the distribution of I(2) in meta-analyses of binary and continuous outcomes and explored hypotheses explaining the difference in distributions.

Results: After full-text screening, we selected 671 meta-analyses evaluating 557 binary and 352 continuous outcomes. Heterogeneity as assessed by I(2) proved higher in continuous than in binary outcomes: the proportion of continuous and binary outcomes reporting an I(2) of 0% was 34% vs. 52%, respectively, and reporting an I(2) of 60-100% was 39% vs. 14%. In continuous but not binary outcomes, I(2) increased with larger number of studies included in a meta-analysis. Increased precision and sample size do not explain the larger I(2) found in meta-analyses of continuous outcomes with a larger number of studies.

Conclusions: Meta-analyses evaluating continuous outcomes showed substantially higher I(2) than meta-analyses of binary outcomes. Results suggest differing standards for interpreting I(2) in continuous vs. binary outcomes may be appropriate.

Keywords: Binary outcomes; Continuous outcomes; Heterogeneity; I(2); Meta-analysis; Number of studies.

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*