Background: Healthcare decision makers strive to operate on the best available evidence. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) Program aims to support healthcare decision makers by producing evidence reviews that rate the strength of evidence. However, the evidence base is often sparse or heterogeneous, or otherwise results in a high degree of uncertainty and insufficient evidence ratings.
Objective: To identify and suggest strategies to make insufficient ratings in systematic reviews more actionable.
Methods: A workgroup comprising EPC Program members convened throughout 2020. We conducted interative discussions considering information from three data sources: a literature review for relevant publications and frameworks, a review of a convenience sample of past systematic reviews conducted by the EPCs, and an audit of methods used in past EPC technical briefs.
Results: Several themes emerged across the literature review, review of systematic reviews, and review of technical brief methods. In the purposive sample of 43 systematic reviews, the use of the term "insufficient" covered both instances of no evidence and instances of evidence being present but insufficient to estimate an effect. The results of the literature review and review of the EPC Program systematic reviews illustrated the importance of clearly stating the reasons for insufficient evidence. Results of both the literature review and review of systematic reviews highlighted the factors decision makers consider when making decisions when evidence of benefits or harms is insufficient, such as costs, values, preferences, and equity. We identified five strategies for supplementing systematic review findings when evidence on benefit or harms is expected to be or found to be insufficient, including: reconsidering eligible study designs, summarizing indirect evidence, summarizing contextual and implementation evidence, modelling, and incorporating unpublished health system data.
Conclusion: Throughout early scoping, protocol development, review conduct, and review presentation, authors should consider five possible strategies to supplement potential insufficient findings of benefit or harms. When there is no evidence available for a specific outcome, reviewers should use a statement such as "no studies" instead of "insufficient." The main reasons for insufficient evidence rating should be explicitly described.
Murad MH, Chang SM, Fiordalisi C, Lin JS, Wilt TJ, Tsou A, Leas B, Siddique S, Zullo A, Balk E, Rutter CM, Robinson K, Coleman C, Costa O, Stoeger E, Arkhipova-Jenkins I, Helfand M, Viswanathan M. Improving the Utility of Evidence Synthesis for Decision Makers in the Face of Insufficient Evidence. Methods White Paper. (Prepared by the Scientific Resource Center under Contract No. 290-2017-00003-C.) AHRQ Publication No. 21-EHC007. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. April 2021. Posted final reports are located on the Effective Health Care Program search page. DOI: 10.23970/AHRQEPCWHITEPAPERIMPROVING.