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Systematic reviews

What is a systematic review?

"A scientific investigation that focuses on a specific question and that uses explicit, planned scientific methods to identify, select, assess, and summarize the findings of similar but separate studies. It may or may not include a quantitative synthesis of the results from separate studies (meta-analysis) depending on the available data." (Finding what works in healthcare: Standards for systematic reviews)

Systematic reviews

  • Use a clearly defines research question with inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Conduct comprehensive and systematic searches of the literature
  • Perform critical analysis of included studies and reports
  • Extract and manage related data
  • Analyze and interpret the results
  • Publish the review

What do systematic reviews accomplish?

"Well-conducted systematic reviews systematically identify, select, assess, and synthesize the relevant body of research, and will help make clear what is known and not known about the potential benefits and harms of alternative drugs, devices, and other healthcare services. Thus, systematic reviews of comparative effectiveness research (CER) can be essential for clinicians who strive to integrate research findings into their daily practices, for patients to make well-informed choices about their own care, for professional medical societies and other organizations that develop clinical practice guidelines (CPGs), and for payers and policy makers.SRs can also inform medical coverage decisions and be used to set agendas and funding for primary research by highlighting gaps in evidence."  (Finding what works in healthcare: Standards for systematic reviews)


  • Planning and conducting a systematic review can take 12-18 months to complete.
  • Work with your college librarian to develop comprehensive search strategies and identify useful databases.
  • Your database searches can lead to thousands of citations; a citation manager will be crucial to organize and annotate these citations.

Steps to a systematic review

  1. Initiate the process, organize the review team, develop a process for gathering user and stakeholder input, formulate the research question, and implement procedures for minimizing the impact of bias and conflict of interests (see standards in chapter 2).
  2. Develop the review protocol, including the context and rationale for the review and the specific procedures for the search strategy, data collection and extraction, qualitative synthesis and quantitative data synthesis (if a meta-analysis is done), reporting, and peer review (see standards in chapter 2).
  3. Systematically locate, screen, and select the studies for review (see standards in chapter 3).
  4. Appraise the risk of bias in the individual studies and extract the data for analysis (see standards in chapter 3).
  5. Synthesize the findings and assess the overall quality of the body of evidence (see standards in chapter 4).
  6. Prepare a final report and have the report undergo peer review (see standards in chapter 5)."

(Finding what works in healthcare: Standards for systematic reviews)

Locating published systematic reviews

PubMed/MEDLINE from the NLM
Use the filter options on the left side of the search screen to limit to systematic reviews.
CINAHL: Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health with Full Text from EBSCOhost
Use the advanced search screen to limit to Publication Type: Systematic Review.
PsycINFO from APA PsycNET
Use the advances search screen to limit to Methodology is Systematic Review.

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