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Open Med. 2009 May 26;3(2):e62-8.

The use of older studies in meta-analyses of medical interventions: a survey.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Evidence for medical interventions sometimes derives from data that are no longer up to date. These data can influence the outcomes of meta-analyses, yet do not always reflect current clinical practice. We examined the age of the data used in meta-analyses contained within systematic reviews of medical interventions, and investigated whether authors consider the age of these data in their interpretations.

METHODS:

From Issue 4, 2005, of the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews we randomly selected 10% of systematic reviews containing at least 1 meta-analysis. From this sample we extracted 1 meta-analysis per primary outcome. We calculated the number of years between the study's publication and 2005 (the year that the systematic review was published), as well as the number of years between the study's publication and the year of the literature search conducted in the study. We assessed whether authors discussed the implications of including less recent data, and, for systematic reviews containing meta-analyses of studies published before 1996, we calculated whether excluding the findings of those studies changed the significance of the outcomes. We repeated these calculations and assessments for 22 systematic reviews containing meta-analyses published in 6 high-impact general medical journals in 2005.

RESULTS:

For 157 meta-analyses (n = 1149 trials) published in 2005, the median year of the most recent literature search was 2003 (interquartile range [IQR] 2002-04). Two-thirds of these meta-analyses (103/157, 66%) involved no trials published in the preceding 5 years (2001-05). Forty-seven meta-analyses (30%) included no trials published in the preceding 10 years (1996-2005). In another 16 (10%), the statistical significance of the outcomes would have been different had the studies been limited to those published between 1996 and 2005, although in some cases this change in significance would have been due to loss of power. Only 12 (8%) of the meta-analyses discussed the potential implications of including older studies. Among the 22 meta-analyses considered in high-impact general medical journals, 2 included no studies published in the 5 years prior to the reference year (2005), and 18 included at least 1 study published before 1996. Only 4 meta-analyses discussed the implications of including older studies.

INTERPRETATION:

In most systematic reviews containing meta-analyses of evidence for health care interventions, very recent studies are rare. Researchers who conduct systematic reviews with meta-analyses, and clinicians who read the outcomes of these studies, should be made aware of the potential implications of including less recent data.

PMID:
19946395
PMCID:
PMC2765773

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