“I like my coffee (and my evidence) strong!”

Let’s say you are still working to solve the issue of whether gum chewing reduces post-operative ileus. You identified titles of all relevant articles using PubMed database (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed), and had the librarian pull the full articles for you.

Now you find yourself looking at a formidable stack of articles on the topic. You are sure that some are probably better quality than coffee2others, but how can you tell?

Professionals have agreed on which types of evidence are strongest. Here’s one well-accepted hierarchy form strongest #1 to weakest #6 (Melnyk & Fineout-Overholt, 2005).

  1. Systematic reviews, Meta-analyses, or Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines based on systematic review of RCTs
  2. Randomized controlled trial
  3. Controlled trials without randomization
  4. Case controlled or cohort studies
  5. Systematic review of descriptive studies
  6. Single descriptive or qualitative study
  7. Expert opinion of individuals or committees

Number 1= Strongest.   Number 6=Weakest

When you are trying to solve a problem, FIRST look for the three (3) types of evidence that are the very strongest (#1). These are:

  1. Systematic reviews that are summaries of research findings from many studies;
  2. Meta-analyses that are summaries of research findings in which the data from those other studies are combined into one big study;
  3. Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines that are clinical recommendations based on a summary of research and other evidence. An expert panel has often agreed on the summary and recommendations.

Your next strongest option, #2, is at least one randomized controlled trial (RCT). In an RCT a group of subjects is randomly separated into at least two groups. One group gets the experimental treatment—whether it is a drug or teaching plan or something else—and the other group usually gets standard treatment or a placebo. Then the group outcomes are compared statistically to see which did better.

Usually the title or first few lines of the article will tell you that the article is a systematic review, a meta-analysis, an evidence-based clinical practice guideline, or an RCT. Rarely is this left a mystery! (Never assume that a research study article is strong just because you LIKE the findings, or that it is weak because you DON’T like the findings.)

I’ll comment on other levels of evidence soon, but let’s focus on the strongest types first. Try the critical thinking for practicing the ideas above.

Critical Thinking:  Using the article titles below, rank these three (3) research studies in order from Strongest evidence to Weakest evidence:

Want to read more?  A good summary of one hierarchy is and why it’s important is at this 5 minute youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5H8w68sr0u8 . While that hierarchy does not precisely match the one above, the video still has lots of good information.




9 thoughts on ““I like my coffee (and my evidence) strong!””

  1. Found a VERY interesting study about studies: Tam, Tang, Di, & Tsoi (2014). How often does an individual trial agree with its corresponding meta-analysis? A meta-epidemiologic study. PLoS One. 9(12):e113994. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113994. eCollection 2014.

    The point of the study is see whether we can move evidence-supported interventions into practice more quickly. Here are their conclusions:

    “The conclusion of the first trial that the treatment is effective or harmful is mostly likely correct. A statistically significant trial agrees more often with its corresponding meta-analysis than a large trial. These findings imply that particularly in some urgent, life-saving or other critical circumstances for which no other effective methods are available, cautious recommendation based on the significant result of the first trial seems justifiable and could start use of an effective intervention by 5-8 years earlier.”


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