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Research Methods & Reporting

Meta-analysis of individual participant data: rationale, conduct, and reporting

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c221 (Published 05 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c221
  1. Richard D Riley, senior lecturer in medical statistics1,
  2. Paul C Lambert, senior lecturer in medical statistics2,
  3. Ghada Abo-Zaid, postgraduate student3
  1. 1Department of Public Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT
  2. 2Centre for Biostatistics and Genetic Epidemiology, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH
  3. 3School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT
  1. Correspondence to: R D Riley r.d.riley{at}bham.ac.uk
  • Accepted 8 September 2009

The use of individual participant data instead of aggregate data in meta-analyses has many potential advantages, both statistically and clinically. Richard D Riley and colleagues describe the rationale for an individual participant data meta-analysis and outline how to conduct this type of study

Meta-analysis methods involve combining and analysing quantitative evidence from related studies to produce results based on a whole body of research. As such, meta-analyses are an integral part of evidence based medicine. Traditional methods for meta-analysis synthesise aggregate study level data obtained from study publications or study authors, such as a treatment effect estimate (for example, an odds ratio) and its associated uncertainty (for example, a standard error or confidence interval). An alternative but increasingly popular approach is meta-analysis of individual participant data, or individual patient data, in which the raw individual level data for each study are obtained and used for synthesis.1 In this article we describe the rationale for individual participant data meta-analysis and illustrate through applied examples why this strategy offers numerous advantages, both clinically and statistically, over the aggregate data approach.1 2 We outline when and how to initiate an individual participant data meta-analysis, the statistical issues in conducting one, how the findings should be reported, and what challenges this approach may bring.

What are individual participant data?

The term “individual participant data” relates to the data recorded for each participant in a study. In a hypertension trial, for example, the individual participant data could be the pre-treatment and post-treatment blood pressure, a treatment group indicator, and important baseline clinical characteristics such as age and sex, for each patient in each study (table). A set of individual participant data from multiple studies often comprises thousands of patients; this is the case in the table, so for brevity we do not show all rows of data …

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