Research Synthesis Methods

Methods for evidence synthesis in the case of very few studies

Journal Article

  • Author(s): Ralf Bender, Tim Friede, Armin Koch, Oliver Kuss, Peter Schlattmann, Guido Schwarzer, Guido Skipka
  • Article first published online: 04 Apr 2018
  • DOI: 10.1002/jrsm.1297
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In systematic reviews, meta‐analyses are routinely applied to summarize the results of the relevant studies for a specific research question. If one can assume that in all studies the same true effect is estimated, the application of a meta‐analysis with common effect (commonly referred to as fixed‐effect meta‐analysis) is adequate. If between‐study heterogeneity is expected to be present, the method of choice is a meta‐analysis with random effects. The widely used DerSimonian and Laird method for meta‐analyses with random effects has been criticized due to its unfavorable statistical properties, especially in the case of very few studies. A working group of the Cochrane Collaboration recommended the use of the Knapp‐Hartung method for meta‐analyses with random effects. However, as heterogeneity cannot be reliably estimated if only very few studies are available, the Knapp‐Hartung method, while correctly accounting for the corresponding uncertainty, has very low power. Our aim is to summarize possible methods to perform meaningful evidence syntheses in the situation with only very few (ie, 2‐4) studies. Some general recommendations are provided on which method should be used when. Our recommendations are based on the existing literature on methods for meta‐analysis with very few studies and consensus of the authors. The recommendations are illustrated by 2 examples coming from dossier assessments of the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care.

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