Surgical treatments for women with stress urinary incontinence: the ESTER systematic review and economic evaluation

Health Technol Assess. 2019 Mar;23(14):1-306. doi: 10.3310/hta23140.


Background: Urinary incontinence in women is a distressing condition that restricts quality of life and results in a large economic burden to both the NHS and women themselves.

Objective: To evaluate the clinical effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of surgical treatment for stress urinary incontinence (SUI) in women and explore women's preferences.

Design: An evidence synthesis, a discrete choice experiment (DCE) and an economic decision model, with a value-of-information (VOI) analysis. Nine surgical interventions were compared. Previous Cochrane reviews for each were identified and updated to include additional studies. Systematic review methods were applied. The outcomes of interest were 'cure' and 'improvement'. Both a pairwise and a network meta-analysis (NMA) were conducted for all available surgical comparisons. A DCE was undertaken to assess the preferences of women for treatment outcomes. An economic model assessed the cost-effectiveness of alternative surgeries and a VOI analysis was undertaken.

Results: Data from 175 studies were included in the effectiveness review. The majority of included studies were rated as being at high or unclear risk of bias across all risk-of-bias domains. The NMA, which included 120 studies that reported data on 'cure' or 'improvement', showed that retropubic mid-urethral sling (MUS), transobturator MUS, traditional sling and open colposuspension were more effective than other surgical procedures for both primary outcomes. The results for other interventions were variable. In general, rate of tape and mesh exposure was higher after transobturator MUS than after retropubic MUS or single-incision sling, whereas the rate of tape or mesh erosion/extrusion was similar between transobturator MUS and retropubic MUS. The results of the DCE, in which 789 women completed an anonymous online questionnaire, indicate that women tend to prefer surgical treatments associated with no pain or mild chronic pain and shorter length of hospital stay as well as those treatments that have a smaller risk for urinary symptoms to reoccur after surgery. The cost-effectiveness results suggest that, over a lifetime, retropubic MUS is, on average, the least costly and most effective surgery. However, the high level of uncertainty makes robust estimates difficult to ascertain. The VOI analysis highlighted that further research around the incidence rates of complications would be of most value.

Limitations: Overall, the quality of the clinical evidence was low, with limited data available for the assessment of complications. Furthermore, there is a lack of robust evidence and significant uncertainty around some parameters in the economic modelling.

Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive assessment of published evidence for the treatment of SUI. There is some evidence that retropubic MUS, transobturator MUS and traditional sling are effective in the short to medium term and that retropubic MUS is cost-effective in the medium to long term. The VOI analysis highlights the value of further research to reduce the uncertainty around the incidence rates of complications. There is a need to obtain robust clinical data in future work, particularly around long-term complication rates.

Study registration: This study is registered as PROSPERO CRD42016049339.

Funding: The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme.


Plain language summary

Urinary incontinence, defined as involuntary leakage of urine, is a common condition that varies in type and severity and can have a huge impact on the quality of life of women. The aim of this project was to summarise the evidence on the clinical effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of nine surgical operations for stress urinary incontinence in women and assess the need for further research. Women’s preferences for surgery were also explored. Currently there is no agreement among decision-makers, doctors and patients about which of the available surgical operations is best. Based on previous Cochrane reviews, the effects and safety of each operation were systematically reviewed and analysed. Their cost-effectiveness and the value of conducting further research were also evaluated. To better understand the preference of women, an online survey containing a discrete choice experiment was conducted. Finally, patient representatives were consulted to help us to understand the consequences of the findings from a patient’s perspective. The evidence on surgical operations was predominantly short to medium term (up to 12 months). This analysis found that the quality of the evidence varied, with the majority of trials being subject to high or unclear risk of bias, making the conclusions that can be drawn less robust. The findings of the clinical evidence review suggest that retropubic sling procedures, transobturator sling procedures and traditional sling procedures are more effective than other surgical procedures for both ‘cure’ and ‘improvement’ of stress urinary incontinence. The results of the economic analyses support these findings, suggesting that retropubic mid-urethral sling is the most cost-effective surgical operation. However, data on complications were lacking, limiting any strong conclusions. The results suggest that there is value in undertaking further research to reduce the uncertainty around the medium- to long-term complications of all surgical treatments and this was reflected in patients’ views.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Models, Economic
  • Network Meta-Analysis*
  • Suburethral Slings
  • Technology Assessment, Biomedical
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Urinary Incontinence, Stress / surgery*
  • Urologic Surgical Procedures*