Thursday, April 8, 2021

Digging Deeper: 5 Ways to Help Guide Decision-Making When Research Evidence is "Insufficient"

A key tenet underlying the GRADE framework is that the certainty of available research evidence is a key factor to be considered in the course of clinical decision-making. But what if little to no published research exists off of which to base a recommendation? At the end of the day, clinicians, patients, policymakers, and others will still need to make a decision, and will look to a guideline for direction. Thankfully, there are other options to pursue within the context of a systematic review or guideline that ensures that as much of the available evidence is presented as possible, although it may be from less traditional or direct sources.

A new project conducted by the Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) Program of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) developed guidance for supplementing a review of evidence when the available research evidence is sparse or insufficient. This guidance was based on a three-pronged approach, including:

  • a literature review of articles that have defined and dealt with insufficient evidence, 
  • a convenience sample of recent systematic reviews conducted by EPCs that included at least one outcome for which the evidence was rated as insufficient, and
  • an audit of technical briefs from the EPCs, which tend to be developed when a given topic is expected to yield little to no published evidence and which often contain supplementary sources of information such as grey literature and expert interviews.
Through this approach, the workgroup identified five key strategies for dealing with the challenge of insufficient evidence:
  1. Reconsider eligible study designs: broaden your search to capture a wider variety of published evidence, such as cohort or case studies.
  2. Summarize evidence outside the prespecified review parameters: use indirect evidence that does not perfectly match the PICO of your topic in order to better contextualize the decision being presented.
  3. Summarize evidence on contextual factors (factors other than benefits/harms): these include key aspects of the GRADE Evidence-to-Decision framework, such as patient values and preferences and the acceptability, feasibility, and cost-effectiveness of a given intervention.
  4. Consider modeling if appropriate, and if expertise is available: if possible, certain types of modeling can help fill in the gaps and make useful predictions for outcomes in lieu of real-life research.
  5. Incorporate health system data: "real-world" evidence such as electronic health records and registries can supplement more mechanistic or explanatory RCTs.

Some of these challenges can be more efficiently addressed up-front, before the scoping of a new review even begins. For instance, identifying topic experts and stakeholders who are familiar with the quantity and quality of available evidence can help a group foresee potential gaps and plan for the need to broaden the scope. Care should be taken to identify the outcomes that are of critical importance to patients, and through this lens, develop strategies and criteria within the protocol that will best meet the needs of the review while tapping into as much evidence as possible. Finally, researchers should avoid using the term "insufficient" when describing the evidence, and instead explicitly state that no eligible studies or types of evidence were available.

Murad MH, Chang SM, Fiordalisi CV, et al. (2021). Improving the utility of evidence synthesis for decisionmakers in the face of insufficient evidence. J Clin Epidemiol, ahead-of-print. 

Manuscript available from publisher's website here.