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Journal: BMC medical research methodology


Controversies are common in medicine. Some arise when the conclusions of research publications directly contradict each other, creating uncertainty for frontline clinicians.

Concepts: Confidence interval


Depression is common in primary care and clinicians are encouraged to screen their patients. Meta-analyses have evaluated the effectiveness of screening, but two author groups consistently reached completely opposite conclusions.

Concepts: Scientific method, Critical thinking, Evaluation methods, Case study


BACKGROUND: Systematic reviews have been challenged to consider effects on disadvantaged groups. A priori specification of subgroup analyses is recommended to increase the credibility of these analyses. This study aimed to develop and assess inter-rater agreement for an algorithm for systematic review authors to predict whether differences in effect measures are likely for disadvantaged populations relative to advantaged populations (only relative effect measures were addressed). METHODS: A health equity plausibility algorithm was developed using clinimetric methods with three items based on literature review, key informant interviews and methodology studies. The three items dealt with the plausibility of differences in relative effects across sex or socioeconomic status (SES) due to: 1) patient characteristics; 2) intervention delivery (i.e., implementation); and 3) comparators. Thirty-five respondents (consisting of clinicians, methodologists and research users) assessed the likelihood of differences across sex and SES for ten systematic reviews with these questions. We assessed inter-rater reliability using Fleiss multi-rater kappa. RESULTS: The proportion agreement was 66% for patient characteristics (95% confidence interval: 61%-71%), 67% for intervention delivery (95% confidence interval: 62% to 72%) and 55% for the comparator (95% confidence interval: 50% to 60%). Inter-rater kappa, assessed with Fleiss kappa, ranged from 0 to 0.199, representing very low agreement beyond chance. CONCLUSIONS: Users of systematic reviews rated that important differences in relative effects across sex and socioeconomic status were plausible for a range of individual and population-level interventions. However, there was very low inter-rater agreement for these assessments. There is an unmet need for discussion of plausibility of differential effects in systematic reviews. Increased consideration of external validity and applicability to different populations and settings is warranted in systematic reviews to meet this need.

Concepts: Evidence-based medicine, Assessment, Interval finite element, Meta-analysis, Cohen's kappa, Inter-rater reliability, Contract, Fleiss' kappa


BACKGROUND: With the increasing use of probabilistically linked administrative data in health research, it is important to understand whether systematic differences occur between the populations with linked and unlinked records. While probabilistic linkage involves combining records for individuals, population perinatal health research requires a combination of information from both the mother and her infant(s). The aims of this study were to (i) describe probabilistic linkage for perinatal records in New South Wales (NSW) Australia, (ii) determine linkage proportions for these perinatal records, and (iii) assess records with linked mother and infant hospital-birth record, and unlinked records for systematic differences. METHODS: This is a population-based study of probabilistically linked statutory birth and hospital records from New South Wales, Australia, 2001-2008. Linkage groups were created where the birth record had complete linkage with hospital admission records for both the mother and infant(s), partial linkage (the mother only or the infant(s) only) or neither. Unlinked hospital records for mothers and infants were also examined. Rates of linkage as a percentage of birth records and descriptive statistics for maternal and infant characteristics by linkage groups were determined. RESULTS: Complete linkage (mother hospital record - birth record - infant hospital record) was available for 95.9% of birth records, partial linkage for 3.6%, and 0.5% with no linked hospital records (unlinked). Among live born singletons (complete linkage = 96.5%) the mothers without linked infant records (1.6%) had slightly higher proportions of young, non- Australian born, socially disadvantaged women with adverse pregnancy outcomes. The unlinked birth records (0.5%) had slightly higher proportions of nulliparous, older, Australian born women giving birth in private hospitals by caesarean section. Stillbirths had the highest rate of unlinked records (3-4%). CONCLUSIONS: This study shows that probabilistic linkage of perinatal records can achieve high, representative levels of complete linkage. Records for mother’s that did not link to infant records and unlinked records had slightly different characteristics to fully linked records. However, these groups were small and unlikely to bias results and conclusions in a sustentative way. Stillbirths present additional challenges to the linkage process due to lower rates of linkage for lower gestational ages, where most stillbirths occur.

Concepts: Pregnancy, Childbirth, Infant, Fetus, Obstetrics, Mother, New South Wales, Mothers


BACKGROUND: Treatment burden can be defined as the self-care practices that patients with chronic illness must perform to respond to the requirements of their healthcare providers, as well as the impact that these practices have on patient functioning and well being. Increasing levels of treatment burden may lead to suboptimal adherence and negative outcomes. Systematic review of the qualitative literature is a useful method for exploring the patient experience of care, in this case the experience of treatment burden. There is no consensus on methods for qualitative systematic review. This paper describes the methodology used for qualitative systematic reviews of the treatment burdens identified in three different common chronic conditions, using stroke as our exemplar. METHODS: Qualitative studies in peer reviewed journals seeking to understand the patient experience of stroke management were sought. Limitations of English language and year of publication 2000 onwards were set. An exhaustive search strategy was employed, consisting of a scoping search, database searches (Scopus, CINAHL, Embase, Medline & PsycINFO) and reference, footnote and citation searching. Papers were screened, data extracted, quality appraised and analysed by two individuals, with a third party for disagreements. Data analysis was carried out using a coding framework underpinned by Normalization Process Theory (NPT). RESULTS: A total of 4364 papers were identified, 54 were included in the review. Of these, 51 (94%) were retrieved from our database search. Methodological issues included: creating an appropriate search strategy; investigating a topic not previously conceptualised; sorting through irrelevant data within papers; the quality appraisal of qualitative research; and the use of NPT as a novel method of data analysis, shown to be a useful method for the purposes of this review. CONCLUSION: The creation of our search strategy may be of particular interest to other researchers carrying out synthesis of qualitative studies. Importantly, the successful use of NPT to inform a coding frame for data analysis involving qualitative data that describes processes relating to self management highlights the potential of a new method for analyses of qualitative data within systematic reviews.

Concepts: Scientific method, Medicine, Patient, Data analysis, Qualitative research, Peer review, Normalization Process Theory, Methodology


BACKGROUND: Static posture, repetitive movements and lack of physical variation are known risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, and thus needs to be properly assessed in occupational studies. The aims of this study were (i) to investigate the effectiveness of a conventional exposure variation analysis (EVA) in discriminating exposure time lines and (ii) to compare it with a new cluster-based method for analysis of exposure variation. METHODS: For this purpose, we simulated a repeated cyclic exposure varying within each cycle between “low” and “high” exposure levels in a “near” or “far” range, and with “low” or “high” velocities (exposure change rates). The duration of each cycle was also manipulated by selecting a “small” or “large” standard deviation of the cycle time. Theses parameters reflected three dimensions of exposure variation, i.e. range, frequency and temporal similarity.Each simulation trace included two realizations of 100 concatenated cycles with either low (rho = 0.1), medium (rho = 0.5) or high (rho = 0.9) correlation between the realizations. These traces were analyzed by conventional EVA, and a novel cluster-based EVA (C-EVA). Principal component analysis (PCA) was applied on the marginal distributions of 1) the EVA of each of the realizations (univariate approach), 2) a combination of the EVA of both realizations (multivariate approach) and 3) C-EVA. The least number of principal components describing more than 90% of variability in each case was selected and the projection of marginal distributions along the selected principal component was calculated. A linear classifier was then applied to these projections to discriminate between the simulated exposure patterns, and the accuracy of classified realizations was determined. RESULTS: C-EVA classified exposures more correctly than univariate and multivariate EVA approaches; classification accuracy was 49%, 47% and 52% for EVA (univariate and multivariate), and C-EVA, respectively (p < 0.001). All three methods performed poorly in discriminating exposure patterns differing with respect to the variability in cycle time duration. CONCLUSION: While C-EVA had a higher accuracy than conventional EVA, both failed to detect differences in temporal similarity. The data-driven optimality of data reduction and the capability of handling multiple exposure time lines in a single analysis are the advantages of the C-EVA.

Concepts: Multivariate statistics, Factor analysis, Principal component analysis, Exposure, Singular value decomposition, Photography, Linear discriminant analysis, The Unscrambler


BACKGROUND: Little evidence is available for the validity of dietary fish and polyunsaturated fatty acid intake derived from interviewer-administered questionnaires and plasma docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) concentration. METHODS: We estimated the correlation of DHA and EPA intake from both questionnaires and biochemical measurements. Ethnic Chinese adults with a mean (+/- SD) age of 59.8 (+/-12.8) years (n = 297) (47% women) who completed a 38-item semi-quantitative food-frequency questionnaire and provided a plasma sample were enrolled. Plasma fatty acids were analyzed by capillary gas chromatography. RESULTS: The Spearmen rank correlation coefficients between the intake of various types of fish and marine n-3 fatty acids as well as plasma DHA were significant, ranging from 0.20 to 0.33 (P < 0.001). In addition, dietary EPA, C22:5 n-3 and DHA were significantly correlated with the levels of marine n-3 fatty acids and DHA, with the Spearman rank correlation coefficients ranging from 0.26 to 0.35 (P < 0.001). Moreover, compared with those in the lowest fish intake quintile, participants in the highest quintile had a significantly higher DHA level (adjusted mean difference, 0.99 +/- 0.10%, test for trend, P < 0.001). Similar patterns between dietary DHA intake and plasma DHA levels were found. However, the association between dietary fish intake and plasma EPA was not significant (test for trend, P = 0.69). CONCLUSIONS: The dietary intakes of fish and of long chain n-3 fatty acids, as determined by the food frequency questionnaire, were correlated with the percentages of these fatty acids in plasma, and in particular with plasma DHA. Plasma DHA levels were correlated to dietary intake of long-chain n-3 fatty acids.

Concepts: Nutrition, Fatty acids, Spearman's rank correlation coefficient, Essential fatty acid, Omega-3 fatty acid, Eicosapentaenoic acid, Docosahexaenoic acid, Butyric acid


Harvest plots are used to graphically display evidence from complex and diverse studies or results. Overviews of reviews bring together evidence from two or more systematic reviews. Our objective was to determine the feasibility of using harvest plots to depict complex results of overviews of reviews.

Concepts: Cross-sectional study, Evidence-based medicine, Systematic review, Meta-analysis, Cultural studies, Cross-sectional analysis


Evidence shows that research abstracts are commonly inconsistent with their corresponding full reports, and may mislead readers. In this scoping review, which is part of our series on the state of reporting of primary biomedical research, we summarized the evidence from systematic reviews and surveys, to investigate the current state of inconsistent abstract reporting, and to evaluate factors associated with improved reporting by comparing abstracts and their full reports.

Concepts: Medical research, Documents


Systematic reviews have been considered as the pillar on which evidence-based healthcare rests. Systematic review methodology has evolved and been modified over the years to accommodate the range of questions that may arise in the health and medical sciences. This paper explores a concept still rarely considered by novice authors and in the literature: determining the type of systematic review to undertake based on a research question or priority.

Concepts: Health care, Medicine, Health, Evidence-based medicine, Systematic review, Randomized controlled trial, Health science