For a lot of researchers in HaPS doing a systematic review is almost a rite of passage. As most people who have done a systematic review will know, it is rarely plain sailing but usually worth it when you come out the other end! Feroz Jadhakhan tells us about his systematic review experience and provides some valuable advice…
In retrospect I went in unprepared. I had indeed familiarised myself with conducting a systematic review and thoroughly read the CRD guidance for undertaking reviews in healthcare, but in reality I did not realise the amount of work and commitment needed in conducting a systematic review. In case you are about to embark on this fascinating journey of evidence based practice/policymaking, systematic reviews provides a well-defined and rigorous approach of identifying, evaluating and interpreting all available research relevant to the topic of interest. If you have the luxury of having committed, dedicated and reliable colleagues/peers, make full use of them. Once you begin this process, it is a lot of hard work. I was lucky enough to have excellent supervisors who besides reviewing my protocol and providing invaluable scientific and practical comments, also agreed to be second and third reviewers.
At the beginning of the review process, a well sought protocol makes a huge difference and serves as a road map for the review. Ensure that the protocol is reviewed and re-reviewed until the review teams are happy. It is also a good idea to register the protocol with the international prospective register of systematic reviews (PROSPERO). Accept that at times it may feel a very tedious process, As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, there were many times that all the database searching and piles of articles to go through and managing large datasets in not so user friendly EndNote/RevMan, it did feel tedious. If you do feel or start feeling like that, my advice is to take a break – go for lunch, get a cuppa or do some other work not related to your systematic review. Once you are at the writing up stage, particularly data extraction, you may notice how poorly researchers are at reporting not only data, but also design of the study and methods of proceeding with the research. So be prepared to contact authors to obtain clarity, and be realistic that some may not answer. Finally, remember a systematic review is a piece of research in its own right and it is also a starting point for further investigation. The crucial thing is what you would do with the information and how you disseminate and utilise the information. For me the review provided the knowledge gap and evidence for the data analysis phase of my PhD project.