In addition to questions of interventions and diagnostic tests, GRADE can also be used to assess the certainty of evidence when it comes to prognostic factors. In part 28 of the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology’s GRADE series published earlier this year, Foroutan and colleagues provide guidance for applying GRADE to a body of evidence of prognostic factors.
The Purpose of Prognostic Studies
GRADE may be applied to a body of evidence, separated by individual prognostic factors instead of outcomes, for one of two reasons. The first is a non-contextualized setting, such as when the certainty of evidence surrounding prognostic factors is being evaluated for application within research planning and analysis (e.g., determining which factors are best to use when stratifying for randomization). The second is a contextualized setting, when the certainty of evidence surrounding prognostic factors is used to help inform clinical decisions.
Establishing the Certainty of Evidence
Unlike when grading the certainty of evidence of an intervention, when assessing prognostic evidence, the overall certainty for observational studies starts out as HIGH. This is because the patient population is likely to be more representative studies than in RCTs, when eligibility criteria may place artificial restrictions on the characteristics of patients. Certainty may then be rated down based on the five traditional domains:
- Risk of bias tools and instruments such as QUality In Prognosis Studies (QUIPS) and Prediction model Risk Of Bias ASsessment Tool (PROBAST) may be helpful here. When teasing out the effect of each potential factor, consider utilizing some form of multivariate analysis that accounts for dependence between several different prognostic factors.
- Inconsistency can be examined via visual tests of the variability between individual point estimates and the overlap of confidence intervals; statistical tests such as i2 are likely to be less helpful, as they can often be inflated when large studies lead to particularly narrow Cis. As always, potential explanations for any observed heterogeneity should be considered a priori.
- Imprecision will depend on whether the setting is contextualized, in which case it will depend on the relationship between the confidence interval and the previously set clinical decision threshold, or non-contextualized, in which case the threshold will most likely represent the line of no effect.
- Indirectness should be based on a comparison of the PICOs for the clinical question at hand, and those addressed in the meta-analyzed studies.
- Publication bias can be assessed via visually exploring a funnel plot or the use of appropriately applied statistical tests.
Foroutan F, Guyatt G, Zuk V, Vandvik PO, Alba AC, Mustafa R, Vernooij R et al. GRADE guidelines 28: Use of GRADE for the assessment of evidence about prognostic factors: Rating certainty in identification of groups of patients with different absolute risks. J Clin Epidemiol 121; 62-70.
Manuscript available from the publisher's website here.