Meta-Analysis – Guide with Definition, Steps & Examples
Published byat April 26th, 2023 , Revised On April 26, 2023
“A meta-analysis is a formal, epidemiological, quantitative study design that uses statistical methods to generalise the findings of the selected independent studies. “
Meta-analysis and systematic review are the two most authentic strategies in research. When researchers start looking for the best available evidence concerning their research work, they are advised to begin from the top of the evidence pyramid. The evidence available in the form of meta-analysis or systematic reviews addressing important questions is significant in academics because it informs decision-making.
What is Meta-Analysis
Meta-analysis estimates the absolute effect of individual independent research studies by systematically synthesising or merging the results. Meta-analysis isn’t only about achieving a wider population by combining several smaller studies. It involves systematic methods to evaluate the inconsistencies in participants, variability (also known as heterogeneity), and findings to check how sensitive their findings are to the selected systematic review protocol.
When Should you Conduct a Meta-Analysis?
Meta-analysis has become a widely-used research method in medical sciences and other fields of work for several reasons. The technique involves summarising the results of independent systematic review studies.
The Cochrane Handbook explains that “an important step in a systematic review is the thoughtful consideration of whether it is appropriate to combine the numerical results of all, or perhaps some, of the studies. Such a meta-analysis yields an overall statistic (together with its confidence interval) that summarizes the effectiveness of an experimental intervention compared with a comparator intervention” (section 10.2).
A researcher or a practitioner should choose meta-analysis when the following outcomes are desirable.
For generating new hypotheses or ending controversies resulting from different research studies. Quantifying and evaluating the variable results and identifying the extent of conflict in literature through meta-analysis is possible.
To find research gaps left unfilled and address questions not posed by individual studies. Primary research studies involve specific types of participants and interventions. A review of these studies with variable characteristics and methodologies can allow the researcher to gauge the consistency of findings across a wider range of participants and interventions. With the help of meta-analysis, the reasons for differences in the effect can also be explored.
To provide convincing evidence. Estimating the effects with a larger sample size and interventions can provide convincing evidence. Many academic studies are based on a very small dataset, so the estimated intervention effects in isolation are not fully reliable.
Elements of a Meta-Analysis
Deeks et al. (2019), Haidilch (2010), and Grant & Booth (2009) explored the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of conducting the meta-analysis. They are briefly explained below.
- A systematic review must be completed before conducting the meta-analysis because it provides a summary of the findings of the individual studies synthesised.
- You can only conduct a meta-analysis by synthesising studies in a systematic review.
- The studies selected for statistical analysis for the purpose of meta-analysis should be similar in terms of comparison, intervention, and population.
- A meta-analysis takes place after the systematic review. The end product is a comprehensive quantitative analysis that is complicated but reliable.
- It gives more value and weightage to existing studies that do not hold practical value on their own.
- Policy-makers and academicians cannot base their decisions on individual research studies. Meta-analysis provides them with a complex and solid analysis of evidence to make informed decisions.
- The meta-analysis uses studies exploring similar topics. Finding similar studies for the meta-analysis can be challenging.
- When and if biases in the individual studies or those related to reporting and specific research methodologies are involved, the meta-analysis results could be misleading.
Steps of Conducting the Meta-Analysis
The process of conducting the meta-analysis has remained a topic of debate among researchers and scientists. However, the following 5-step process is widely accepted.
Step 1: Research Question
The first step in conducting clinical research involves identifying a research question and proposing a hypothesis. The potential clinical significance of the research question is then explained, and the study design and analytical plan are justified.
Step 2: Systematic Review
The purpose of a systematic review (SR) is to address a research question by identifying all relevant studies that meet the required quality standards for inclusion. While established journals typically serve as the primary source for identified studies, it is important to also consider unpublished data to avoid publication bias or the exclusion of studies with negative results.
While some meta-analyses may limit their focus to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for the sake of obtaining the highest quality evidence, other experimental and quasi-experimental studies may be included if they meet the specific inclusion/exclusion criteria established for the review.
Step 3: Data Extraction
After selecting studies for the meta-analysis, researchers extract summary data or outcomes, as well as sample sizes and measures of data variability for both intervention and control groups. The choice of outcome measures depends on the research question and the type of study, and may include numerical or categorical measures.
For instance, numerical means may be used to report differences in scores on a questionnaire or changes in a measurement, such as blood pressure. In contrast, risk measures like odds ratios (OR) or relative risks (RR) are typically used to report differences in the probability of belonging to one category or another, such as vaginal birth versus cesarean birth.
Step 4: Standardisation and Weighting Studies
After gathering all the required data, the fourth step involves computing suitable summary measures from each study for further examination. These measures are typically referred to as Effect Sizes and indicate the difference in average scores between the control and intervention groups. For instance, it could be the variation in blood pressure changes between study participants who used drug X and those who used a placebo.
Since the units of measurement often differ across the included studies, standardization is necessary to create comparable effect size estimates. Standardization is accomplished by determining, for each study, the average score for the intervention group, subtracting the average score for the control group, and dividing the result by the relevant measure of variability in that dataset.
In some cases, the results of certain studies must carry more significance than others. Larger studies, as measured by their sample sizes, are deemed to produce more precise estimates of effect size than smaller studies. Additionally, studies with less variability in data, such as smaller standard deviation or narrower confidence intervals, are typically regarded as higher quality in study design. A weighting statistic that aims to incorporate both of these factors, known as inverse variance, is commonly employed.
Step 5: Absolute Effect Estimation
The ultimate step in conducting a meta-analysis is to choose and utilize an appropriate model for comparing Effect Sizes among diverse studies. Two popular models for this purpose are the Fixed Effects and Random Effects models. The Fixed Effects model relies on the premise that each study is evaluating a common treatment effect, implying that all studies would have estimated the same Effect Size if sample variability were equal across all studies.
Conversely, the Random Effects model posits that the true treatment effects in individual studies may vary from each other, and endeavors to consider this additional source of interstudy variation in Effect Sizes. The existence and magnitude of this latter variability is usually evaluated within the meta-analysis through a test for ‘heterogeneity.’
The results of a meta-analysis are often visually presented using a “Forest Plot”. This type of plot displays, for each study, included in the analysis, a horizontal line that indicates the standardized Effect Size estimate and 95% confidence interval for the risk ratio used. Figure A provides an example of a hypothetical Forest Plot in which drug X reduces the risk of death in all three studies.
However, the first study was larger than the other two, and as a result, the estimates for the smaller studies were not statistically significant. This is indicated by the lines emanating from their boxes, including the value of 1. The size of the boxes represents the relative weights assigned to each study by the meta-analysis. The combined estimate of the drug’s effect, represented by the diamond, provides a more precise estimate of the drug’s effect, with the diamond indicating both the combined risk ratio estimate and the 95% confidence interval limits.
Figure-A: Hypothetical Forest Plot
Relevance to Practice and Research
Evidence Based Nursing commentaries often include recently published systematic reviews and meta-analyses, as they can provide new insights and strengthen recommendations for effective healthcare practices. Additionally, they can identify gaps or limitations in current evidence and guide future research directions.
The quality of the data available for synthesis is a critical factor in the strength of conclusions drawn from meta-analyses, and this is influenced by the quality of individual studies and the systematic review itself. However, meta-analysis cannot overcome issues related to underpowered or poorly designed studies.
Therefore, clinicians may still encounter situations where the evidence is weak or uncertain, and where higher-quality research is required to improve clinical decision-making. While such findings can be frustrating, they remain important for informing practice and highlighting the need for further research to fill gaps in the evidence base.
Methods and Assumptions in Meta-Analysis
Ensuring the credibility of findings is imperative in all types of research, including meta-analyses. To validate the outcomes of a meta-analysis, the researcher must confirm that the research techniques used were accurate in measuring the intended variables. Typically, researchers establish the validity of a meta-analysis by testing the outcomes for homogeneity or the degree of similarity between the results of the combined studies.
Homogeneity is preferred in meta-analyses as it allows the data to be combined without needing adjustments to suit the study’s requirements. To determine homogeneity, researchers assess heterogeneity, the opposite of homogeneity. Two widely used statistical methods for evaluating heterogeneity in research results are Cochran’s-Q and I-Square, also known as I-2 Index.
Difference Between Meta-Analysis and Systematic Reviews
Meta-analysis and systematic reviews are both research methods used to synthesise evidence from multiple studies on a particular topic. However, there are some key differences between the two.
Systematic reviews involve a comprehensive and structured approach to identifying, selecting, and critically appraising all available evidence relevant to a specific research question. This process involves searching multiple databases, screening the identified studies for relevance and quality, and summarizing the findings in a narrative report.
Meta-analysis, on the other hand, involves using statistical methods to combine and analyze the data from multiple studies, with the aim of producing a quantitative summary of the overall effect size. Meta-analysis requires the studies to be similar enough in terms of their design, methodology, and outcome measures to allow for meaningful comparison and analysis.
Therefore, systematic reviews are broader in scope and summarize the findings of all studies on a topic, while meta-analyses are more focused on producing a quantitative estimate of the effect size of an intervention across multiple studies that meet certain criteria. In some cases, a systematic review may be conducted without a meta-analysis if the studies are too diverse or the quality of the data is not sufficient to allow for statistical pooling.
Software Packages For Meta-Analysis
Meta-analysis can be done through software packages, including free and paid options. One of the most commonly used software packages for meta-analysis is RevMan by the Cochrane Collaboration.
Assessing the Quality of Meta-Analysis
Assessing the quality of a meta-analysis involves evaluating the methods used to conduct the analysis and the quality of the studies included. Here are some key factors to consider:
- Study selection: The studies included in the meta-analysis should be relevant to the research question and meet predetermined criteria for quality.
- Search strategy: The search strategy should be comprehensive and transparent, including databases and search terms used to identify relevant studies.
- Study quality assessment: The quality of included studies should be assessed using appropriate tools, and this assessment should be reported in the meta-analysis.
- Data extraction: The data extraction process should be systematic and clearly reported, including any discrepancies that arose.
- Analysis methods: The meta-analysis should use appropriate statistical methods to combine the results of the included studies, and these methods should be transparently reported.
- Publication bias: The potential for publication bias should be assessed and reported in the meta-analysis, including any efforts to identify and include unpublished studies.
- Interpretation of results: The results should be interpreted in the context of the study limitations and the overall quality of the evidence.
- Sensitivity analysis: Sensitivity analysis should be conducted to evaluate the impact of study quality, inclusion criteria, and other factors on the overall results.
Overall, a high-quality meta-analysis should be transparent in its methods and clearly report the included studies’ limitations and the evidence’s overall quality.
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Examples of Meta-Analysis
Frequently Asked Questions
Meta-analysis is a statistical method used to combine results from multiple studies on a specific topic. By pooling data from various sources, meta-analysis can provide a more precise estimate of the effect size of a treatment or intervention and identify areas for future research.
Meta-analysis is important because it combines and summarizes results from multiple studies to provide a more precise and reliable estimate of the effect of a treatment or intervention. This helps clinicians and policymakers make evidence-based decisions and identify areas for further research.
A meta-analysis of studies evaluating physical exercise’s effect on depression in adults is an example. Researchers gathered data from 49 studies involving a total of 2669 participants. The studies used different types of exercise and measures of depression, which made it difficult to compare the results.
Through meta-analysis, the researchers calculated an overall effect size and determined that exercise was associated with a statistically significant reduction in depression symptoms. The study also identified that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, performed three to five times per week, was the most effective. The meta-analysis provided a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of exercise on depression than any single study could provide.
Meta-analysis in clinical research is a statistical technique that combines data from multiple independent studies on a particular topic to generate a summary or “meta” estimate of the effect of a particular intervention or exposure.
This type of analysis allows researchers to synthesise the results of multiple studies, potentially increasing the statistical power and providing more precise estimates of treatment effects. Meta-analyses are commonly used in clinical research to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of medical interventions and to inform clinical practice guidelines.
Meta-analysis is a quantitative method used to combine and analyze data from multiple studies. It involves the statistical synthesis of results from individual studies to obtain a pooled estimate of the effect size of a particular intervention or treatment. Therefore, meta-analysis is considered a quantitative approach to research synthesis.