NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Cover of The Refinement of Topics for Systematic Reviews

The Refinement of Topics for Systematic Reviews

Lessons and Recommendations From the Effective Health Care Program

Methods Research Reports

Investigators: , MD, MPH, , MBBS, MMedSc, MPhil, , PhD, , MPA, and , MD, MPH.

Author Information
Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); .
Report No.: 13-EHC023-EF

Structured Abstract


The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Effective Health Care (EHC) Program conducts systematic reviews on a range of health care topics. Topics are nominated by a variety of stakeholders. Nominated topics undergo a refinement process to ensure that the Key Questions are relevant, of appropriate scope, and will ultimately yield a useful systematic review. Topic refinement investigators gather input from Key Informants, topical experts, and a literature scan to inform changes in the PICOTS (population, intervention, comparator, outcomes, timing, and setting), analytic framework and Key Questions. Evidence-based Practice Centers (EPCs) have approached the topic refinement process in similar and different ways. AHRQ convened a work group to assess current approaches and to develop recommendations for best practices; we report our findings here.

Design and setting:

We formed a workgroup of four investigators from four different EPCs in the United States and Canada and one AHRQ Project Officer. All participants held experience in topic refinement. We generated a prioritized list of methodological questions and possible guiding principles considered in the topic refinement process. We discussed each issue until we reached agreement.


A refined topic should address an important health care question or dilemma; consider the priorities and values of relevant stakeholders; reflect the state of the science; and be consistent with systematic review research methods. The guiding principles of topic refinement are: fidelity to the original nomination, public health and/or clinical relevance, research feasibility, responsiveness to stakeholder input, reducing investigator bias, transparency, and suitable scope. We describe the mechanics of the topic refinement process, and discuss approaches and variability in methods used by EPCs to engage Key Informants, integrate and synthesize input, and report findings. Practical suggestions and challenges in preparing and recruiting Key Informants, facilitating engagement, synthesis, and reporting are described and discussed. Decisions about integrating input from various sources require investigator judgment in the application and balance of the guiding principles. The relative importance and application of these principles will vary by topic and purpose of the systematic review. Variability in topics precludes a prescriptive approach to application of the guiding principles. Transparency and consistent documentation of decisions are important for public accountability and integrity of the topic refinement process.


Systematic reviews that are accurate, methodologically rigorous, and as relevant and useful as possible for stakeholders require that topics be well refined. This report details guiding principles and methodological recommendations that may help investigators to better refine topics for systematic reviews, both within and outside of the EHC Program.

The investigators comprise a cross-EPC workgroup assembled to research and write this report. The support staff at the Oregon EPC helped with the logistics and preparation of the final report.

Prepared for: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services1, Contract No. 290-2007-10057-I. Prepared by: Oregon Evidence-based Practice, Center Portland, OR

Suggested citation:

Buckley DI, Ansari M, Butler M, Williams C, Chang C. The Refinement of Topics for Systematic Reviews: Lessons and Recommendations from the Effective Health Care Program. Methods Research Report. (Prepared by Oregon Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2007-10057-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 13-EHC023-EF. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; January 2013.

This report is based on research conducted by the Oregon Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) under contract to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Rockville, MD (Contract No. 290-2007-10057-I). The findings and conclusions in this document are those of the authors, who are responsible for its contents; the findings and conclusions do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ. No statement in this report should be construed as an official position of AHRQ or of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The information in this report is intended to help health care decisionmakers—patients and clinicians, health system leaders, and policymakers, among others—make well-informed decisions and thereby improve the quality of health care services. This report is not intended to be a substitute for the application of clinical judgment. Anyone who makes decisions concerning the provision of clinical care should consider this report in the same way as any medical reference and in conjunction with all other pertinent information, i.e., in the context of available resources and circumstances presented by individual patients.

This report may be used, in whole or in part, as the basis for development of clinical practice guidelines and other quality enhancement tools, or as a basis for reimbursement and coverage policies. AHRQ or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services endorsement of such derivative products may not be stated or implied.

None of the investigators have any affiliations or financial involvement that conflicts with the material presented in this report.


540 Gaither Road, Rockville, MD 20850; www‚Äč

Bookshelf ID: NBK121274PMID: 23409302


Related information

Similar articles in PubMed

See reviews...See all...

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...