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Public Health: Systematic Reviews

What are Systematic Reviews?

Systematic Reviews are, at their simplest level, comprehensive evidence reviews on a specific topic (e.g., programs, interventions, research questions). Exhaustive literature searches are completed and located evidence (i.e., journal articles) is analysed, synthesized, compared, assessed for quality, and summarized. Systematic reviews began in the clinical sciences and typically use randomized controlled trials (RCT) as the 'gold standard' in terms of evidence.

Since the use of RCTs can often be unethical in population or public health studies, systematic reviews are less common in the population or public health literature. However, in recent years more studies that use qualitative methodology have begun to be included in systematic reviews. An important background article on systematic reviews is:

Mullen PD, Ramirez G. The promise and pitfalls of systematic reviews. Annual Review of Public Health. 27:81-102, 2006. [PubMed]

The systematic review "movement" that has transformed medical journal reports of clinical trials and reviews of clinical trials has taken hold in public health, with the most recent milestone, the publication of the first edition of The Guide to Community Health Services in 2005. In this paper we define and distinguish current terms, point out important resources for systematic reviews, describe the impact of systematic review on the quality of primary studies and summaries of the evidence, and provide perspectives on the promise of systematic reviews for shaping the agenda for public health research. Several pitfalls are discussed, including a false sense of rigor implied by the terms "systematic review" and "meta-analysis" and substantial variation in the validity of claims that a particular intervention is "evidence based," and the difficulty of translating conclusions from systematic reviews into public health advocacy and practice. 

Systematic Review Intro video

The following is the 1st in a series of videos from Yale on Systematic Reviews. You can view the rest of the videos here:

Interested in doing a synthesis review?

Are you thinking of conducting a synthesis review (systematic review, scoping review, realist review, etc.)?

Consult this Synthesis Review Toolkit which was developed to guide individuals from various academic backgrounds through their journey of conducting a synthesis review.

Read up on it!

Systematic Review Resources

Resources for Systematic Reviews & Evidence-based Public Health Practice - From the University of Texas School of Public Health Library, this site contains a wealth of information on developing systematic reviews in public health.