Conference of Cochrane Evidence: Useful, Usable & Used #CE3U

My journey with Cochrane started one summer afternoon in 2010, when I interviewed a Tallaghtdoctor (Tallaght is a rough suburb in Dublin, Ireland) about treatments for drinking problems of people who also use other drugs. I emphasized that brief psychosocial interventions were the treatment of choice for patients who don’t use other drugs and that there’s no reason why this should be different for drug users. He asked me whether I was Swedish, because of my accent, and replied by a single question which kept me awake at night and started my career as an addiction investigator: “Does it work?” I decided to celebrate the four years of trying to find an answer to his question at the Cochrane conference in Manchester, UK.
Wednesday 23rd April 2014
This year’s conference of UK and Irish Cochrane contributors’ swapped plenaries and workshops – Wednesday kicked off with two sessions of developmental workshops. The motto of the priority setting workshop was  “Don’t start a journey that you can’t finish”. Pragmatism is a very important part of priority setting. The value of setting priorities in healthcare is the expected gain from reducing the uncertainty. In another words, to reduce the probability that somebody somewhere is getting a wrong treatment.
Figure 1. Bees were the theme of Cochrane conference
The key question of the public health workshop was How to produce good reviews quickly? Growing number of people are interested in doing reviews under the public health group. Most public health studies are non-randomised. Evidence forms just one part of the complex process of public health policy – timeliness is the big factor. The idea of local context permeates all policies – is this relevant to your local area? All of us, as Cochrane reviewers, give shades of grey and they [policy makers] want black& white answers.
The first afternoon plenary started a faithful member of the Cochrane family, Nicky Cullum. She described how easy reviews were in the past. Her talk inspired 12 new tweets in the first 5 minutes of the plenary (#CE3Useful). The beginning of Cochrane nursing group was accompanied by skepticism “Are RCTs possible in nursing?  Is experimentation at odds with caring?” The explosion of nursing trials in the recent years posed new challenges “How on earth do we help non-academic clinicians to have both clinical and academic career?” Trisha Greenhalghconcluded the first with provocative lecture about boringness of Cochrane reviews. She used the example of young doctor Archie Cochrane in a German camp to demonstrate that the art of rhetoric consists of logos, ethos and pathos. Her other work on how innovations rise and how they spread further supported the rhetoric argument. While a logo is the only thing in scholarship rhetoric, factual knowledge can be rarely separated from ethical or social context. By trying to do so, the Cochrane researchers are stripping away the very thing they need to be exploring – how to change the world through science. The methodological fetishism developed in Cochrane collaboration (linked to control, rationalism and accountability) hinders production of more realist and interesting reviews.
Thursday morning plenaries helped the delegates to confer after the gala dinner last night. Rich Rosenfeld, a Professor and Chairman of Otolaryngology, explained how Cochrane reviewers can help policy makers by rapid reviews – Good is ok, perfect we don’t need [for guidelines]. A health economist, Karl Claxton, continued the discussion on when no more evidence is needed. Research takes long time and evidence that we already have can inform allocation of research funds for new projects. However, we should be cautious about judging the usefulness trials with hindsight, it’s wrong because we don’t know the context. Neal Maskery made the audience “lol” with very entertaining and interactive plenary which focused on what we know about how people make decisions. Our brain is so good at patterns recognition – it wants to do it all the time. This phenomenon is called Base rate neglect – a cognitive bias. Biases such as this one hinder innovation and affect our decisions in all areas from buying a car to prescribing medicines. Al Mulley, an expert on shared decision making, finished morning lectures with a story of how every patient brings their own context by using examples from his research on how bothersome is urinary dysfunction.

The special addition to the conference was presence of Students 4 Best Evidence, some of whom won prizes from UK Cochrane centre, including free travel and conference participation. Read more about their winning entries on prostatecancer, dentalhealth, smoking, and long-term illness.

From a personal perspective, starting a Cochrane review took me on a journey which led from a clinical question (from the Tallaght doctor), to policy development, medical education and further research in a very short time. I still don’t know whether counselling works for drink problems in people who also use other drugs, but I’ve learned how to find an answer using the Cochrane methodology.