Quantitative synthesis in systematic reviews

Ann Intern Med. 1997 Nov 1;127(9):820-6. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-127-9-199711010-00008.


The final common pathway for most systematic reviews is a statistical summary of the data, or meta-analysis. The complex methods used in meta-analyses should always be complemented by clinical acumen and common sense in designing the protocol of a systematic review, deciding which data can be combined, and determining whether data should be combined. Both continuous and binary data can be pooled. Most meta-analyses summarize data from randomized trials, but other applications, such as the evaluation of diagnostic test performance and observational studies, have also been developed. The statistical methods of meta-analysis aim at evaluating the diversity (heterogeneity) among the results of different studies, exploring and explaining observed heterogeneity, and estimating a common pooled effect with increased precision. Fixed-effects models assume that an intervention has a single true effect, whereas random-effects models assume that an effect may vary across studies. Meta-regression analyses, by using each study rather than each patient as a unit of observation, can help to evaluate the effect of individual variables on the magnitude of an observed effect and thus may sometimes explain why study results differ. It is also important to assess the robustness of conclusions through sensitivity analyses and a formal evaluation of potential sources of bias, including publication bias and the effect of the quality of the studies on the observed effect.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design* / standards
  • Statistics as Topic