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Systematic Reviews

Levels of Evidence

The evidence pyramid is often used to illustrate the development of evidence. At the base of the pyramid is animal research and laboratory studies – this is where ideas are first developed. As you progress up the pyramid the amount of information available decreases in volume, but increases in relevance to the clinical setting.

Meta Analysis – systematic review that uses quantitative methods to synthesize and summarize the results.

Systematic Review – summary of the medical literature that uses explicit methods to perform a comprehensive literature search and critical appraisal of individual studies and that uses appropriate statistical techniques to combine these valid studies.

Randomized Controlled Trial – Participants are randomly allocated into an experimental group or a control group and followed over time for the variables/outcomes of interest.

Cohort Study – Involves identification of two groups (cohorts) of patients, one which received the exposure of interest, and one which did not, and following these cohorts forward for the outcome of interest.

Case Control Study – study which involves identifying patients who have the outcome of interest (cases) and patients without the same outcome (controls), and looking back to see if they had the exposure of interest.

Case Series – report on a series of patients with an outcome of interest. No control group is involved.

When searching for evidence to answer clinical questions, aim to identify the highest level of available evidence. Evidence hierarchies can help you strategically identify which resources to use for finding evidence, as well as which search results are most likely to be "best".                                             

Evidence resources in this guide are organized based on publication types within a hierarchy of evidence, demonstrated by this image (followed by explanatory text):                                                                                                                              Hierarchy of Evidence. For a text-based version, see text below image.                           

Image source: Evidence-Based Practice: Study Design from Duke University Medical Center Library & Archives. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The hierarchy of evidence (also known as the evidence-based pyramid) is depicted as a triangular representation of the levels of evidence with the strongest evidence at the top which progresses down through evidence with decreasing strength. At the top of the pyramid are research syntheses, such as Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews, the strongest forms of evidence. Below research syntheses are primary research studies progressing from experimental studies, such as Randomized Controlled Trials, to observational studies, such as Cohort Studies, Case-Control Studies, Cross-Sectional Studies, Case Series, and Case Reports. Non-Human Animal Studies and Laboratory Studies occupy the lowest level of evidence at the base of the pyramid.