Identifying inconsistency in network meta-analysis: Is the net heat plot a reliable method?

Stat Med. 2019 Dec 20;38(29):5547-5564. doi: 10.1002/sim.8383. Epub 2019 Oct 24.


One of the biggest challenges for network meta-analysis is inconsistency, which occurs when the direct and indirect evidence conflict. Inconsistency causes problems for the estimation and interpretation of treatment effects and treatment contrasts. Krahn and colleagues proposed the net heat approach as a graphical tool for identifying and locating inconsistency within a network of randomized controlled trials. For networks with a treatment loop, the net heat plot displays statistics calculated by temporarily removing each design one at a time, in turn, and assessing the contribution of each remaining design to the inconsistency. The net heat plot takes the form of a matrix which is displayed graphically with coloring indicating the degree of inconsistency in the network. Applied to a network of individual participant data assessing overall survival in 7531 patients with lung cancer, we were surprised to find no evidence of important inconsistency from the net heat approach; this contradicted other approaches for assessing inconsistency such as the Bucher approach, Cochran's Q statistic, node-splitting, and the inconsistency parameter approach, which all suggested evidence of inconsistency within the network at the 5% level. Further theoretical work shows that the calculations underlying the net heat plot constitute an arbitrary weighting of the direct and indirect evidence which may be misleading. We illustrate this further using a simulation study and a network meta-analysis of 10 treatments for diabetes. We conclude that the net heat plot does not reliably signal inconsistency or identify designs that cause inconsistency.

Keywords: inconsistency; net heat plot; network meta-analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biostatistics
  • Computer Graphics
  • Computer Simulation
  • Databases, Factual / statistics & numerical data
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Lung Neoplasms / mortality
  • Lung Neoplasms / therapy
  • Models, Statistical
  • Network Meta-Analysis*


  • Hypoglycemic Agents