Monday, 18 April 2016

Tackling the developing frontier of overviews of systematic reviews in research

Carole Lunny is with the Australasian Cochrane Centre and is completing her PhD in an exciting new field exploring the methodological issues in conducting overviews of systematic reviews.

Overviews of systematic reviews are a type of study that attempts to systematically retrieve and summarise the results of multiple systematic reviews into a single document. Overviews are of increasing importance to researchers and health care professionals seeking to provide evidence-based health care, because they provide systematically prepared summaries of the current state of research knowledge on the effectiveness of health care interventions.

Carole Lunny began her PhD at SPHPM in June 2014 after relocating from Vancouver. Her research interests with the Cochrane Centre involve methodological issues involved in conducting, interpreting and reporting overviews of systematic reviews. She works closely with a collaborative team of expert researchers including Sue Brennan, Steve McDonald and Joanne McKenzie.

“There’s only been about 200 overviews of systematic reviews done since 2011, it’s a big picture review of systematic reviews and the methods for conducting such overviews are still evolving,” said Lunny.

Overviews are particularly relevant to faculty, staff, researchers, policy makers and students as they can provide evidence on the effectiveness of several different treatments on one or more conditions.

“Many clinicians, academics, and PhD students in the future are going to be doing either systematic reviews or overviews of systematic reviews, I think my research into methods for overviews will be really useful in the future in guiding this type of meta-study,” said Lunny.

“Overviews have unique methodological challenges not shared with systematic reviews, such as overlapping primary studies, discrepant results and conclusions, and assessment of the quality of the evidence. These methodological issues have not been evaluated by researchers because very few researchers are methodologists.

“The importance of overviews is that there may be multiple systematic reviews examining the same topic with different results or discordant conclusions. An overview attempts to explain which systematic review characteristics or methods can explain the differences in results or conclusions. ”

Lunny worked for the past six years as a researcher and statistical analyst on several systematic reviews and meta-analyses while at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). She has also worked for a number of international development organisations in the US, Canada, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand and Mexico.

Overviews of systematic reviews have grown in popularity in the last decade. They are also known as umbrella reviews, meta-reviews or meta-syntheses. These types of overviews are especially important for broad evidence synthesis and policy development.

If researchers are interested in the methods being developed for overviews of systematic reviews, they can read Lunny’s two published papers, on how to retrieve overviews of systematic reviews in MEDLINE or PubMed, and her second on an evidence mapping project which aims to evaluate and map methods studies of overviews and identify and describe unique methodological challenges of overviews. She is supervised by Joanne McKenzie and Steve McDonald.

Cochrane produces trusted health information in the form of systematic reviews that are free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest, which is recognised as representing an international gold standard for high quality, trusted information. In 2008 they produced a handbook chapter on overviews of systematic reviews that can be accessed here.

*JBI promote and support the synthesis, transfer and utilization of evidence through identifying feasible, appropriate, meaningful and effective healthcare practices to assist in the improvement of healthcare outcomes globally. In 2015, they produced a chapter on methodology on umbrella reviews.

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