Category: Systematic review

Systematic reviews are the cream of the research crop. Those who understand their value thrive at an opportunity to learn more about them.

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.

Beg, steel or borrow: getting physicians to recruit patients in clinical trials

Leaflets, adverts and phone calls have all been used to recruit patients in clinical trials with some results. Still, the personal contact remains the most reliable method, if you can get the recruiter to do it. In this post, I explore some of the barriers of clinicians’ recruitment activity in randomised controlled trials.

Lack of time, specialist staff and patient motivation are the most frequently reported barriers that prevent clinicians to recruit their patients into clinical trials. Even though the physician signs up for the study and is informed about what is involved, they often do not complete the job. Some are distracted by competing clinical priorities, while others cannot get a positive answer from their patients. Regardless of the reason, the research suffers because of low participation numbers and prolonged study set-up.
iStockphotos.com


Researchers from the University Of Birmingham, UK, looked at all ways that improve the clinicians’ recruitment activity. Their systematic reviewof scientific literature compared the impact of different recruitment strategies and underlying clinician attitudes. To recruit successfully, the clinicians should be incentivised or supported in some way. Unfortunately, many researchers use supports that don’t work. What’s more worrying is that nobody knows how to boost clinicians’ recruitment rates. The study authors recommend that each clinical trial uses qualitative methods to ask clinicians what would work for them and use their suggestions. Another issue was what clinicians think of clinical trials. Misconceptions about trials methods still prevail and clinicians do not see the positives of trials; nor do their patients. Improved education and communication from researchers to physicians can overcome these issues.

Paying research participants for taking part can increase the number of people who agree to take part in the study, the so-called consent rate. It has become a norm in the Western world studies. Still, some studies and countries are unable to provide financial incentives to patients who volunteer for research. Direct payments may also be viewed as introducing unwanted bias into research results. Some may think that people who get paid for research would not participate if they did not get anything. Human motivation is a mysterious subject and money is part of it. It is the currency of modern society.

Is it ethical?

The healing relationship between the patient and doctor can be viewed as unsuitable for recruiting patients into clinical trials. Patients may feel obliged to agree, without making a fully informed decision. Ideally, the recruitment should be done by someone who isn’t involved in patients’ care; however, this is often not feasible in the real life. On one hand, the participants should make an informed decision about their participation and decide voluntarily. On the other hand, the researchers should not surprise patients who attend medical services for non-research purposes. The way to overcome this problem is through a two-stage recruitment process, as used in our study. The first step is to give information. The care provider gives a leaflet with information about the study to potential participants. The person goes home and reads the leaflet at their leisure. When they come to see their doctor next time, they can ask questions about the study, and decide to take, or not to take, part in the study.

Recruitment to randomised trials will probably always remain an issue for science. With an open mind, the investigators and clinicians can seek better solutions for creating trials that would attract human participants and help advance science for the benefit of all.

Cited articles:
Ben Fletcher, Adrian Gheorghe, David Moore, Sue Wilson, Sarah Damery: Improving the recruitment activity of clinicians in randomised controlled trials: a systematic review. BMJ Open 2012;2:1 e000496 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000496

Klimas J, Anderson R, Bourke M, Bury G, Field CA, Kaner E, Keane R, Keenan E, Meagher D, Murphy B, O’Gorman CSM, O’Toole TP, Saunders J, Smyth BP, Dunne C, Cullen W: Psychosocial Interventions for Alcohol Use Among Problem Drug Users: Protocol for a Feasibility Study in Primary Care. JMIR Res Protocols 2013;2(2):e26
doi: 10.2196/resprot.2678

Are alcohol and drugs addictions genetically linked? A new paper out now


 What is the role of genetic determinants in development of concurrent alcohol and opioid dependence? The current evidence base is inconclusive; we found 33 studies, but most of them studied each dependency separately.

Check out our new critical review (https://www.oapublishinglondon.com/abstract/978)

Is it easier to recruit participants in space? Ten years of Cochrane and Mike Clarke in Ireland

Tenth annual Cochrane in Ireland conference“From evidence to clinical guidelines” took place on 24 January 2014 at School of Nursing& Human Sciences, Dublin City University.

The 7-hours programme kicked off with a welcome by Professor John Costello, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Health, Dublin City University, followed by the National Clinical Effectiveness Agenda of Dr Kathleen MacLellan, Director National Clinical Effectiveness Committee, Department of Health, Dublin.

Figure 1 Yellow arrow card
Mike Clarke’s (Professor & Director of MRC Methodology Hub, Queen’s University Belfast) random thoughts about randomised trials covered some of the more unusual things people have studied. There are approximately 25000 new randomised trials every year, leading to around 700 000 trials registered in CENTRAL Cochrane database. From this overwhelming amount of evidence, Dr Clarke cherry-picked the most unusual, controversial and interesting trials. His presentation started by distributing yellow-arrow cards to delegates in anticipation of active engagement (See figure 1).

Figure 2 Votes and Mike Clarke
Dr Clarke’s random thoughts started with sweets as tip boosters and continued through gamgee hats to lipsticks, restaurants and vegetables, organ music, citruses, chocolate and space trials – a truly spectacular collection. We all voted on Clarke’s provoking questions about these trials (shown in figure 2): did sweets increase, decrease or unchanged the size of the tip? Does smiley face make more difference in tips size than a hand-written thank you? How beneficial is doodling while working or phone-calling? Mike encouraged us to relate each of these entertaining questions to bigger dilemmas about trials, for example, who is in charge of interpreting whether an intervention works? Or, do we believe something because it was published? Ending on a positive note, Clarke presented trials that were conducted on astronauts in the international space station. The drop-out rate was 0 because they had nowhere to go?

Help, I’m stuck.

After a brief tea and coffee break, the participants dispersed into three parallel sessions (N=25:12:7). Dr Clarke’s session was most popular. Traditionally, Mike uses the power and knowledge of a group of people at his workshops that might have some problems with their Cochrane reviews, but collectively have the knowledge to solve them. The list of participants’ questions that he wrote on the white board at the session start was left with only 2-3 questions unanswered. The group disciplines were mutually helpful – psychology, general practice, nursing or information science, experienced reviewers and Cochrane’s novices.
Two other sessions happened in parallel with Clarke’s workshop. Drs O’Rourke & O’Toole covered practicalities of generating clinical guidelines for cancer treatment in Ireland. Dr Matthews, HRB Cochrane Fellow and Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing & Human Sciences, Dublin City University, helped delegates with issues around starting Cochrane reviews.

Lunch was in the campus canteen – each delegate got a €10 voucher. The atmosphere in the canteen was conducive to contact making; we sat by long tables surrounded by students.

The afternoon programme included 2 lectures by Susan Smith and Anne Matthews, and a conclusion by Dr Teresa Maguire – Head of the population science and health services research at the Health Research Board in Ireland. Dr Matthews corroborated on her experience of doing a review on morning sicknessand being a Cochrane fellow – it’s for life, not just for the 2-year fellowship. Dr Smith is a Professor of general practice at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland who has done 9 Cochrane reviews. Her rich experiences from these reviews were especially useful for those interested in multimorbidity.

Pedicabs, Cochrane & Drugs Conference in San Diego

I was in San Diego (CA) 9 years ago. We went there with my wife, then a girlfriend, on a J1 Student work & travel programme. We worked as pedicab drivers – did not make much money but got the best tan (and time) in our lives. This year, we returned to Sand Diego for my presentation at the conference of the College on Problems of Drugs Dependence.

The drugs conference

This was probably the biggest conference I’ve ever attended. I underestimated the power that such enormous scientific stimulation can have on my thinking and experiencing of the world of addictions. My notebook is again full of ideas for research and life. To share just one of them, Wyoming is the only state in which has free access to Cochrane reviews in US. Cochrane collaboration is committed to produce high quality reviews of scientific evidence which aim to change the clinical practice and policy. USA produces the biggest number of studies that get included in Cochrane reviews. Are they not interested in reading what Cochrane reviews make of their clinical trials?

As I was coming back from the conference hotel to my hostel in the down town, I passed by an older man in red jacket entering the historical Simmons hotel with a bag of groceries. ‘I used to live here, 9 months ago’ said I when I saw him. ‘Nine years ago, I used to be a general manager of this hotel’ was his response. Back then, it was very difficult to convince this stern man that we would be able to pay our rent from our pedicab money. His face glowed when he finished our small talk ‘It’s a nice place to live’.

The pedicabs

To my big surprise, we haven’t seen many pedicabs on the streets of San Diego. But it didn’t discourage us from taking a memorial ride from the US Midway to down town. We stopped a driver from Canada wearing a US flag as his head band. He explained what has caused the decline of pedicabs in SD:

  • no J1 student drivers allowed (since 2009)
  • the upper limit of new licenses – drop from 600 to 200
  • Californian driving license required (since 2011)
  • insurance for all

… we still didn’t manage to get on the Midway, maybe next time.
My new friend Portland, John Fitzgerald, PhD, wrote about this conference too, in his June blog.