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Education And Debate

Systematic Reviews: Rationale for systematic reviews

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 03 September 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:597
  1. C D Mulrow
  1. Divisions of General Medicine and Geriatrics, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, Texas 70284, USA.

    Systematic literature reviews including meta-analyses are invaluable scientific activities. The rationale for such reviews is well established. Health care providers, researchers, and policy makers are inundated with unmanageable amounts of information; they need systematic reviews to efficiently integrate existing information and provide data for rational decision making. Systematic reviews establish whether scientific findings are consistent and can be generalised across populations, settings, and treatment variations, or whether findings vary significantly by particular subsets. Meta-analyses in particular can increase power and precision of estimates of treatment effects and exposure risks. Finally explicit methods used in systematic reviews limit bias and, hopefully, will improve reliability and accuracy of conclusions.

    Systematic literature review is a fundamental scientific activity. Its rationale is grounded firmly in several premises. Firstly, large quantities of information must be reduced into palatable pieces for digestion. Over two million articles are published annually in the biomedical literature in over 20 000 journals1 - literally a small mountain of information. For example, about 4400 pages were devoted to approximately 1100 articles in the BMJ and New England Journal of Medicine, combined, in 1992. In a stack, two million such articles would rise 500 m. Clearly, systematic literature review is needed to refine these unmanageable amounts of information. Through critical exploration, evaluation, and synthesis the systematic review separates the insignificant, unsound, or redundant deadwood in the medical literature from the salient and critical studies that are worthy of reflection.2

    Secondly, various decision makers need to integrate the critical pieces of available biomedical information. Systematic reviews are used by more specialised integrators, such as economic and decision analysts, to estimate the variables and outcomes that are included in their evaluations. Both systematic and more specialised integrations are used by clinicians to keep abreast of the primary literature in a given field …

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