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Overviews of reviews (overviews) compile information from multiple systematic reviews (SRs) to provide a single synthesis of relevant evidence for decision-making. Overviews may identify multiple SRs that examine the same intervention for the same condition and include some, but not all, of the same primary studies. There is currently limited guidance on whether and how to include these overlapping SRs in overviews. Our objectives were to assess how different inclusion decisions in overviews of healthcare interventions affect their comprehensiveness and results, and document challenges encountered when making different inclusion decisions in overviews.
We used five inclusion decisions to conduct overviews across seven topic areas, resulting in 35 overviews. The inclusion decisions were (1) include all Cochrane and non-Cochrane SRs, (2) include only Cochrane SRs, or consider all Cochrane and non-Cochrane SRs but include only non-overlapping SRs, and in the case of overlapping SRs, select (3) the Cochrane SR, (4) the most recent SR (by publication or search date), or (5) the highest quality SR (assessed using AMSTAR). For each topic area and inclusion scenario, we documented the amount of outcome data lost and changed and the challenges involved.
When conducting overviews, including only Cochrane SRs, instead of all SRs, often led to loss/change of outcome data (median 31% of outcomes lost/changed; range 0–100%). Considering all Cochrane and non-Cochrane SRs but including only non-overlapping SRs and selecting the Cochrane SR for groups of overlapping SRs (instead of the most recent or highest quality SRs) allowed the most outcome data to be recaptured (median 42% of lost/changed outcome recaptured; range 28–86%). Across all inclusion scenarios, challenges were encountered when extracting data from overlapping SRs.
Overlapping SRs present a methodological challenge for overview authors. This study demonstrates that different inclusion decisions affect the comprehensiveness and results of overviews in different ways, depending in part on whether Cochrane SRs examine all intervention comparisons relevant to the overview. Study results were used to develop an evidence-based decision tool that provides practical guidance for overview authors.