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  • Systematic Review | Definition, Example, & Guide

Systematic Review | Definition, Example & Guide

Published on June 15, 2022 by Shaun Turney . Revised on November 20, 2023.

A systematic review is a type of review that uses repeatable methods to find, select, and synthesize all available evidence. It answers a clearly formulated research question and explicitly states the methods used to arrive at the answer.

They answered the question “What is the effectiveness of probiotics in reducing eczema symptoms and improving quality of life in patients with eczema?”

In this context, a probiotic is a health product that contains live microorganisms and is taken by mouth. Eczema is a common skin condition that causes red, itchy skin.

Table of contents

What is a systematic review, systematic review vs. meta-analysis, systematic review vs. literature review, systematic review vs. scoping review, when to conduct a systematic review, pros and cons of systematic reviews, step-by-step example of a systematic review, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about systematic reviews.

A review is an overview of the research that’s already been completed on a topic.

What makes a systematic review different from other types of reviews is that the research methods are designed to reduce bias . The methods are repeatable, and the approach is formal and systematic:

  • Formulate a research question
  • Develop a protocol
  • Search for all relevant studies
  • Apply the selection criteria
  • Extract the data
  • Synthesize the data
  • Write and publish a report

Although multiple sets of guidelines exist, the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews is among the most widely used. It provides detailed guidelines on how to complete each step of the systematic review process.

Systematic reviews are most commonly used in medical and public health research, but they can also be found in other disciplines.

Systematic reviews typically answer their research question by synthesizing all available evidence and evaluating the quality of the evidence. Synthesizing means bringing together different information to tell a single, cohesive story. The synthesis can be narrative ( qualitative ), quantitative , or both.

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can you do a literature review on a systematic review

Systematic reviews often quantitatively synthesize the evidence using a meta-analysis . A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis, not a type of review.

A meta-analysis is a technique to synthesize results from multiple studies. It’s a statistical analysis that combines the results of two or more studies, usually to estimate an effect size .

A literature review is a type of review that uses a less systematic and formal approach than a systematic review. Typically, an expert in a topic will qualitatively summarize and evaluate previous work, without using a formal, explicit method.

Although literature reviews are often less time-consuming and can be insightful or helpful, they have a higher risk of bias and are less transparent than systematic reviews.

Similar to a systematic review, a scoping review is a type of review that tries to minimize bias by using transparent and repeatable methods.

However, a scoping review isn’t a type of systematic review. The most important difference is the goal: rather than answering a specific question, a scoping review explores a topic. The researcher tries to identify the main concepts, theories, and evidence, as well as gaps in the current research.

Sometimes scoping reviews are an exploratory preparation step for a systematic review, and sometimes they are a standalone project.

A systematic review is a good choice of review if you want to answer a question about the effectiveness of an intervention , such as a medical treatment.

To conduct a systematic review, you’ll need the following:

  • A precise question , usually about the effectiveness of an intervention. The question needs to be about a topic that’s previously been studied by multiple researchers. If there’s no previous research, there’s nothing to review.
  • If you’re doing a systematic review on your own (e.g., for a research paper or thesis ), you should take appropriate measures to ensure the validity and reliability of your research.
  • Access to databases and journal archives. Often, your educational institution provides you with access.
  • Time. A professional systematic review is a time-consuming process: it will take the lead author about six months of full-time work. If you’re a student, you should narrow the scope of your systematic review and stick to a tight schedule.
  • Bibliographic, word-processing, spreadsheet, and statistical software . For example, you could use EndNote, Microsoft Word, Excel, and SPSS.

A systematic review has many pros .

  • They minimize research bias by considering all available evidence and evaluating each study for bias.
  • Their methods are transparent , so they can be scrutinized by others.
  • They’re thorough : they summarize all available evidence.
  • They can be replicated and updated by others.

Systematic reviews also have a few cons .

  • They’re time-consuming .
  • They’re narrow in scope : they only answer the precise research question.

The 7 steps for conducting a systematic review are explained with an example.

Step 1: Formulate a research question

Formulating the research question is probably the most important step of a systematic review. A clear research question will:

  • Allow you to more effectively communicate your research to other researchers and practitioners
  • Guide your decisions as you plan and conduct your systematic review

A good research question for a systematic review has four components, which you can remember with the acronym PICO :

  • Population(s) or problem(s)
  • Intervention(s)
  • Comparison(s)

You can rearrange these four components to write your research question:

  • What is the effectiveness of I versus C for O in P ?

Sometimes, you may want to include a fifth component, the type of study design . In this case, the acronym is PICOT .

  • Type of study design(s)
  • The population of patients with eczema
  • The intervention of probiotics
  • In comparison to no treatment, placebo , or non-probiotic treatment
  • The outcome of changes in participant-, parent-, and doctor-rated symptoms of eczema and quality of life
  • Randomized control trials, a type of study design

Their research question was:

  • What is the effectiveness of probiotics versus no treatment, a placebo, or a non-probiotic treatment for reducing eczema symptoms and improving quality of life in patients with eczema?

Step 2: Develop a protocol

A protocol is a document that contains your research plan for the systematic review. This is an important step because having a plan allows you to work more efficiently and reduces bias.

Your protocol should include the following components:

  • Background information : Provide the context of the research question, including why it’s important.
  • Research objective (s) : Rephrase your research question as an objective.
  • Selection criteria: State how you’ll decide which studies to include or exclude from your review.
  • Search strategy: Discuss your plan for finding studies.
  • Analysis: Explain what information you’ll collect from the studies and how you’ll synthesize the data.

If you’re a professional seeking to publish your review, it’s a good idea to bring together an advisory committee . This is a group of about six people who have experience in the topic you’re researching. They can help you make decisions about your protocol.

It’s highly recommended to register your protocol. Registering your protocol means submitting it to a database such as PROSPERO or ClinicalTrials.gov .

Step 3: Search for all relevant studies

Searching for relevant studies is the most time-consuming step of a systematic review.

To reduce bias, it’s important to search for relevant studies very thoroughly. Your strategy will depend on your field and your research question, but sources generally fall into these four categories:

  • Databases: Search multiple databases of peer-reviewed literature, such as PubMed or Scopus . Think carefully about how to phrase your search terms and include multiple synonyms of each word. Use Boolean operators if relevant.
  • Handsearching: In addition to searching the primary sources using databases, you’ll also need to search manually. One strategy is to scan relevant journals or conference proceedings. Another strategy is to scan the reference lists of relevant studies.
  • Gray literature: Gray literature includes documents produced by governments, universities, and other institutions that aren’t published by traditional publishers. Graduate student theses are an important type of gray literature, which you can search using the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) . In medicine, clinical trial registries are another important type of gray literature.
  • Experts: Contact experts in the field to ask if they have unpublished studies that should be included in your review.

At this stage of your review, you won’t read the articles yet. Simply save any potentially relevant citations using bibliographic software, such as Scribbr’s APA or MLA Generator .

  • Databases: EMBASE, PsycINFO, AMED, LILACS, and ISI Web of Science
  • Handsearch: Conference proceedings and reference lists of articles
  • Gray literature: The Cochrane Library, the metaRegister of Controlled Trials, and the Ongoing Skin Trials Register
  • Experts: Authors of unpublished registered trials, pharmaceutical companies, and manufacturers of probiotics

Step 4: Apply the selection criteria

Applying the selection criteria is a three-person job. Two of you will independently read the studies and decide which to include in your review based on the selection criteria you established in your protocol . The third person’s job is to break any ties.

To increase inter-rater reliability , ensure that everyone thoroughly understands the selection criteria before you begin.

If you’re writing a systematic review as a student for an assignment, you might not have a team. In this case, you’ll have to apply the selection criteria on your own; you can mention this as a limitation in your paper’s discussion.

You should apply the selection criteria in two phases:

  • Based on the titles and abstracts : Decide whether each article potentially meets the selection criteria based on the information provided in the abstracts.
  • Based on the full texts: Download the articles that weren’t excluded during the first phase. If an article isn’t available online or through your library, you may need to contact the authors to ask for a copy. Read the articles and decide which articles meet the selection criteria.

It’s very important to keep a meticulous record of why you included or excluded each article. When the selection process is complete, you can summarize what you did using a PRISMA flow diagram .

Next, Boyle and colleagues found the full texts for each of the remaining studies. Boyle and Tang read through the articles to decide if any more studies needed to be excluded based on the selection criteria.

When Boyle and Tang disagreed about whether a study should be excluded, they discussed it with Varigos until the three researchers came to an agreement.

Step 5: Extract the data

Extracting the data means collecting information from the selected studies in a systematic way. There are two types of information you need to collect from each study:

  • Information about the study’s methods and results . The exact information will depend on your research question, but it might include the year, study design , sample size, context, research findings , and conclusions. If any data are missing, you’ll need to contact the study’s authors.
  • Your judgment of the quality of the evidence, including risk of bias .

You should collect this information using forms. You can find sample forms in The Registry of Methods and Tools for Evidence-Informed Decision Making and the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluations Working Group .

Extracting the data is also a three-person job. Two people should do this step independently, and the third person will resolve any disagreements.

They also collected data about possible sources of bias, such as how the study participants were randomized into the control and treatment groups.

Step 6: Synthesize the data

Synthesizing the data means bringing together the information you collected into a single, cohesive story. There are two main approaches to synthesizing the data:

  • Narrative ( qualitative ): Summarize the information in words. You’ll need to discuss the studies and assess their overall quality.
  • Quantitative : Use statistical methods to summarize and compare data from different studies. The most common quantitative approach is a meta-analysis , which allows you to combine results from multiple studies into a summary result.

Generally, you should use both approaches together whenever possible. If you don’t have enough data, or the data from different studies aren’t comparable, then you can take just a narrative approach. However, you should justify why a quantitative approach wasn’t possible.

Boyle and colleagues also divided the studies into subgroups, such as studies about babies, children, and adults, and analyzed the effect sizes within each group.

Step 7: Write and publish a report

The purpose of writing a systematic review article is to share the answer to your research question and explain how you arrived at this answer.

Your article should include the following sections:

  • Abstract : A summary of the review
  • Introduction : Including the rationale and objectives
  • Methods : Including the selection criteria, search method, data extraction method, and synthesis method
  • Results : Including results of the search and selection process, study characteristics, risk of bias in the studies, and synthesis results
  • Discussion : Including interpretation of the results and limitations of the review
  • Conclusion : The answer to your research question and implications for practice, policy, or research

To verify that your report includes everything it needs, you can use the PRISMA checklist .

Once your report is written, you can publish it in a systematic review database, such as the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews , and/or in a peer-reviewed journal.

In their report, Boyle and colleagues concluded that probiotics cannot be recommended for reducing eczema symptoms or improving quality of life in patients with eczema. Note Generative AI tools like ChatGPT can be useful at various stages of the writing and research process and can help you to write your systematic review. However, we strongly advise against trying to pass AI-generated text off as your own work.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Student’s  t -distribution
  • Normal distribution
  • Null and Alternative Hypotheses
  • Chi square tests
  • Confidence interval
  • Quartiles & Quantiles
  • Cluster sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Data cleansing
  • Reproducibility vs Replicability
  • Peer review
  • Prospective cohort study

Research bias

  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Placebo effect
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Hindsight bias
  • Affect heuristic
  • Social desirability bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

A systematic review is secondary research because it uses existing research. You don’t collect new data yourself.

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Systematic Literature Review or Literature Review?

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Table of Contents

As a researcher, you may be required to conduct a literature review. But what kind of review do you need to complete? Is it a systematic literature review or a standard literature review? In this article, we’ll outline the purpose of a systematic literature review, the difference between literature review and systematic review, and other important aspects of systematic literature reviews.

What is a Systematic Literature Review?

The purpose of systematic literature reviews is simple. Essentially, it is to provide a high-level of a particular research question. This question, in and of itself, is highly focused to match the review of the literature related to the topic at hand. For example, a focused question related to medical or clinical outcomes.

The components of a systematic literature review are quite different from the standard literature review research theses that most of us are used to (more on this below). And because of the specificity of the research question, typically a systematic literature review involves more than one primary author. There’s more work related to a systematic literature review, so it makes sense to divide the work among two or three (or even more) researchers.

Your systematic literature review will follow very clear and defined protocols that are decided on prior to any review. This involves extensive planning, and a deliberately designed search strategy that is in tune with the specific research question. Every aspect of a systematic literature review, including the research protocols, which databases are used, and dates of each search, must be transparent so that other researchers can be assured that the systematic literature review is comprehensive and focused.

Most systematic literature reviews originated in the world of medicine science. Now, they also include any evidence-based research questions. In addition to the focus and transparency of these types of reviews, additional aspects of a quality systematic literature review includes:

  • Clear and concise review and summary
  • Comprehensive coverage of the topic
  • Accessibility and equality of the research reviewed

Systematic Review vs Literature Review

The difference between literature review and systematic review comes back to the initial research question. Whereas the systematic review is very specific and focused, the standard literature review is much more general. The components of a literature review, for example, are similar to any other research paper. That is, it includes an introduction, description of the methods used, a discussion and conclusion, as well as a reference list or bibliography.

A systematic review, however, includes entirely different components that reflect the specificity of its research question, and the requirement for transparency and inclusion. For instance, the systematic review will include:

  • Eligibility criteria for included research
  • A description of the systematic research search strategy
  • An assessment of the validity of reviewed research
  • Interpretations of the results of research included in the review

As you can see, contrary to the general overview or summary of a topic, the systematic literature review includes much more detail and work to compile than a standard literature review. Indeed, it can take years to conduct and write a systematic literature review. But the information that practitioners and other researchers can glean from a systematic literature review is, by its very nature, exceptionally valuable.

This is not to diminish the value of the standard literature review. The importance of literature reviews in research writing is discussed in this article . It’s just that the two types of research reviews answer different questions, and, therefore, have different purposes and roles in the world of research and evidence-based writing.

Systematic Literature Review vs Meta Analysis

It would be understandable to think that a systematic literature review is similar to a meta analysis. But, whereas a systematic review can include several research studies to answer a specific question, typically a meta analysis includes a comparison of different studies to suss out any inconsistencies or discrepancies. For more about this topic, check out Systematic Review VS Meta-Analysis article.

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With Elsevier’s Language Editing Plus services , you can relax with our complete language review of your systematic literature review or literature review, or any other type of manuscript or scientific presentation. Our editors are PhD or PhD candidates, who are native-English speakers. Language Editing Plus includes checking the logic and flow of your manuscript, reference checks, formatting in accordance to your chosen journal and even a custom cover letter. Our most comprehensive editing package, Language Editing Plus also includes any English-editing needs for up to 180 days.

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Systematic Reviews and Meta Analysis

  • Getting Started
  • Guides and Standards
  • Review Protocols
  • Databases and Sources
  • Randomized Controlled Trials
  • Controlled Clinical Trials
  • Observational Designs
  • Tests of Diagnostic Accuracy
  • Software and Tools
  • Where do I get all those articles?
  • Collaborations
  • EPI 233/528
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  • Risk of Bias (RoB)

Systematic review Q & A

What is a systematic review.

A systematic review is guided filtering and synthesis of all available evidence addressing a specific, focused research question, generally about a specific intervention or exposure. The use of standardized, systematic methods and pre-selected eligibility criteria reduce the risk of bias in identifying, selecting and analyzing relevant studies. A well-designed systematic review includes clear objectives, pre-selected criteria for identifying eligible studies, an explicit methodology, a thorough and reproducible search of the literature, an assessment of the validity or risk of bias of each included study, and a systematic synthesis, analysis and presentation of the findings of the included studies. A systematic review may include a meta-analysis.

For details about carrying out systematic reviews, see the Guides and Standards section of this guide.

Is my research topic appropriate for systematic review methods?

A systematic review is best deployed to test a specific hypothesis about a healthcare or public health intervention or exposure. By focusing on a single intervention or a few specific interventions for a particular condition, the investigator can ensure a manageable results set. Moreover, examining a single or small set of related interventions, exposures, or outcomes, will simplify the assessment of studies and the synthesis of the findings.

Systematic reviews are poor tools for hypothesis generation: for instance, to determine what interventions have been used to increase the awareness and acceptability of a vaccine or to investigate the ways that predictive analytics have been used in health care management. In the first case, we don't know what interventions to search for and so have to screen all the articles about awareness and acceptability. In the second, there is no agreed on set of methods that make up predictive analytics, and health care management is far too broad. The search will necessarily be incomplete, vague and very large all at the same time. In most cases, reviews without clearly and exactly specified populations, interventions, exposures, and outcomes will produce results sets that quickly outstrip the resources of a small team and offer no consistent way to assess and synthesize findings from the studies that are identified.

If not a systematic review, then what?

You might consider performing a scoping review . This framework allows iterative searching over a reduced number of data sources and no requirement to assess individual studies for risk of bias. The framework includes built-in mechanisms to adjust the analysis as the work progresses and more is learned about the topic. A scoping review won't help you limit the number of records you'll need to screen (broad questions lead to large results sets) but may give you means of dealing with a large set of results.

This tool can help you decide what kind of review is right for your question.

Can my student complete a systematic review during her summer project?

Probably not. Systematic reviews are a lot of work. Including creating the protocol, building and running a quality search, collecting all the papers, evaluating the studies that meet the inclusion criteria and extracting and analyzing the summary data, a well done review can require dozens to hundreds of hours of work that can span several months. Moreover, a systematic review requires subject expertise, statistical support and a librarian to help design and run the search. Be aware that librarians sometimes have queues for their search time. It may take several weeks to complete and run a search. Moreover, all guidelines for carrying out systematic reviews recommend that at least two subject experts screen the studies identified in the search. The first round of screening can consume 1 hour per screener for every 100-200 records. A systematic review is a labor-intensive team effort.

How can I know if my topic has been been reviewed already?

Before starting out on a systematic review, check to see if someone has done it already. In PubMed you can use the systematic review subset to limit to a broad group of papers that is enriched for systematic reviews. You can invoke the subset by selecting if from the Article Types filters to the left of your PubMed results, or you can append AND systematic[sb] to your search. For example:

"neoadjuvant chemotherapy" AND systematic[sb]

The systematic review subset is very noisy, however. To quickly focus on systematic reviews (knowing that you may be missing some), simply search for the word systematic in the title:

"neoadjuvant chemotherapy" AND systematic[ti]

Any PRISMA-compliant systematic review will be captured by this method since including the words "systematic review" in the title is a requirement of the PRISMA checklist. Cochrane systematic reviews do not include 'systematic' in the title, however. It's worth checking the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews independently.

You can also search for protocols that will indicate that another group has set out on a similar project. Many investigators will register their protocols in PROSPERO , a registry of review protocols. Other published protocols as well as Cochrane Review protocols appear in the Cochrane Methodology Register, a part of the Cochrane Library .

  • Next: Guides and Standards >>
  • Last Updated: Feb 26, 2024 3:17 PM
  • URL: https://guides.library.harvard.edu/meta-analysis

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  • What is a Systematic Review (SR)?

Steps of a Systematic Review

  • Framing a Research Question
  • Developing a Search Strategy
  • Searching the Literature
  • Managing the Process
  • Meta-analysis
  • Publishing your Systematic Review

Forms and templates

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  • PICO Template
  • Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria
  • Database Search Log
  • Review Matrix
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   • PRISMA Flow Diagram  - Record the numbers of retrieved references and included/excluded studies. You can use the Create Flow Diagram tool to automate the process.

   •  PRISMA Checklist - Checklist of items to include when reporting a systematic review or meta-analysis

PRISMA 2020 and PRISMA-S: Common Questions on Tracking Records and the Flow Diagram

  • PROSPERO Template
  • Manuscript Template
  • Steps of SR (text)
  • Steps of SR (visual)
  • Steps of SR (PIECES)

Adapted from  A Guide to Conducting Systematic Reviews: Steps in a Systematic Review by Cornell University Library

Source: Cochrane Consumers and Communications  (infographics are free to use and licensed under Creative Commons )

Check the following visual resources titled " What Are Systematic Reviews?"

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Assembling Your Team

Steps of a systematic review, writing and publishing your protocol.

  • Database Searching
  • Creating the Search
  • Search Filters & Hedges
  • Grey Literature
  • Managing & Appraising Results
  • Further Resources

team

It is essential that Cochrane reviews be undertaken by more than one person. This ensures that tasks such as selection of studies for eligibility and data extraction can be performed by at least two people independently, increasing the likelihood that errors are detected.

- Cochrane Handbook version 5.1 , 2011, section 2.3.4.1

The objective of organizing the review team is to pull together a group of researchers as well as key users and stakeholders who have the necessary skills and clinical content knowledge to produce a high-quality SR.
Standard 2.1 Establish a team with appropriate expertise and experience to conduct the systematic review Required elements: Include expertise in the pertinent clinical content areas Include expertise in systematic review methods Include expertise in searching for relevant evidence Include expertise in quantitative methods Include other expertise as appropriate

- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews , chapter 2, 2011.

See the further resources page for links to more in-depth resources on these steps.

steps of systematic review

  • Usually this means deciding on an answerable question. The PICO framework can help you formulate a question that can be answered in the literature. PICO stands for: Patient or population, Intervention, Comparison or control, and Outcome.
  • It is important to include team members who have clinical expertise related to the research topic. You also want to have at least one team member with expertise systematic review methodology, one team member with expertise in evidence searching (e.g. a medical librarian), and a biostatistician if you intend to perform a meta-analysis on your findings.
  • A protocol is critical for your process. It spells out your search plan and your inclusion and exclusion criteria for the evidence you will discover. Sticking to your previously published protocol increases transparency and reduces bias in the process of gathering evidence.
  • You may need to do some scoping searches as you develop your protocol, in order to help refine your research question.
  • Once your protocol is finalized, you can work with a medical librarian on search strategies for multiple literature databases.
  • Evidence may exist beyond the published literature. Gray literature searching is necessary to correct for publication bias.
  • At least two independent screeners review titles and abstracts first, then full text.
  • Various quality checklists (especially for RCTs) exist. You may also want to read about Cochrane's methods and  risk of bias tool.
  • Data must be extracted in a structured, documented way for included studies.
  • Meta-analyses statistically combine results from multiple studies to gain more power, potentially detecting a different effect, through a larger sample size than the individual studies. A biostatistician should be part of the research team if a meta-analysis is conducted.
  • It may not be possible to perform a meta-analysis on the existing evidence. In this case, evidence can be synthesized narratively.
  • PRISMA is a popular reporting standard required by many journals.
  • Check to see if a specialized reporting standard exists for your subfield.

What is a protocol?

  • A protocol lays out your plan for the systematic review. It specifies the systematic review authors, the rationale and objectives for the review, the inclusion and exclusion criteria for study eligibility, the databases to be searched along with the search strategy, and the process for managing, screening, analyzing, and synthesizing the results.

Why write a protocol?

  • As with any other study, a systematic review needs a plan. The protocol provides the team with a road map for complection.

Why publish a protocol?

  • A published protocol makes your plan public. This accountability mitigates bias that can result from changing the research topic, or study eligibility criteria, based on results that were discovered during the study.
  • It also informs other researchers of your ongoing work, preventing possible duplication of efforts.
  • For more, read this article: Why prospective registration of systematic reviews makes sense

Guidance on writing a protocol

  • PRISMA-P is an extension of the PRISMA reporting standard for protocols
  • The Cochrane Handbook part 1, chapter 4 has information on writing Cochrane protocols

Sharing/publishing protocols

  • Systematic Reviews journal
  • PROSPERO , a database of protocols (it's free to add yours)
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  • Next: Database Searching >>
  • Last Updated: Mar 1, 2024 10:55 AM
  • URL: https://guides.library.ucla.edu/systematicreviews

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Systematic reviews are a type of literature review of research which require equivalent standards of rigour as primary research. They have a clear, logical rationale that is reported to the reader of the review. They are used in research and policymaking to inform evidence-based decisions and practice. They differ from traditional literature reviews particularly in the following elements of conduct and reporting.

Systematic reviews: 

  • use explicit and transparent methods
  • are a piece of research following a standard set of stages
  • are accountable, replicable and updateable
  • involve users to ensure a review is relevant and useful.

For example, systematic reviews (like all research) should have a clear research question, and the perspective of the authors in their approach to addressing the question is described. There are clearly described methods on how each study in a review was identified, how that study was appraised for quality and relevance and how it is combined with other studies in order to address the review question. A systematic review usually involves more than one person in order to increase the objectivity and trustworthiness of the reviews methods and findings.

Research protocols for systematic reviews may be peer-reviewed and published or registered in a suitable repository to help avoid duplication of reviews and for comparisons to be made with the final review and the planned review.

  • History of systematic reviews to inform policy (EPPI-Centre)
  • Six reasons why it is important to be systematic (EPPI-Centre)
  • Evidence Synthesis International (ESI): Position Statement Describes the issues, principles and goals in synthesising research evidence to inform policy, practice and decisions

On this page

Should all literature reviews be 'systematic reviews', different methods for systematic reviews, reporting standards for systematic reviews.

Literature reviews provide a more complete picture of research knowledge than is possible from individual pieces of research. This can be used to: clarify what is known from research, provide new perspectives, build theory, test theory, identify research gaps or inform research agendas.

A systematic review requires a considerable amount of time and resources, and is one type of literature review.

If the purpose of a review is to make justifiable evidence claims, then it should be systematic, as a systematic review uses rigorous explicit methods. The methods used can depend on the purpose of the review, and the time and resources available.

A 'non-systematic review' might use some of the same methods as systematic reviews, such as systematic approaches to identify studies or quality appraise the literature. There may be times when this approach can be useful. In a student dissertation, for example, there may not be the time to be fully systematic in a review of the literature if this is only one small part of the thesis. In other types of research, there may also be a need to obtain a quick and not necessarily thorough overview of a literature to inform some other work (including a systematic review). Another example, is where policymakers, or other people using research findings, want to make quick decisions and there is no systematic review available to help them. They have a choice of gaining a rapid overview of the research literature or not having any research evidence to help their decision-making. 

Just like any other piece of research, the methods used to undertake any literature review should be carefully planned to justify the conclusions made. 

Finding out about different types of systematic reviews and the methods used for systematic reviews, and reading both systematic and other types of review will help to understand some of the differences. 

Typically, a systematic review addresses a focussed, structured research question in order to inform understanding and decisions on an area. (see the  Formulating a research question  section for examples). 

Sometimes systematic reviews ask a broad research question, and one strategy to achieve this is the use of several focussed sub-questions each addressed by sub-components of the review.  

Another strategy is to develop a map to describe the type of research that has been undertaken in relation to a research question. Some maps even describe over 2,000 papers, while others are much smaller. One purpose of a map is to help choose a sub-set of studies to explore more fully in a synthesis. There are also other purposes of maps: see the box on  systematic evidence maps  for further information. 

Reporting standards specify minimum elements that need to go into the reporting of a review. The reporting standards refer mainly to methodological issues but they are not as detailed or specific as critical appraisal for the methodological standards of conduct of a review.

A number of organisations have developed specific guidelines and standards for both the conducting and reporting on systematic reviews in different topic areas.  

  • PRISMA PRISMA is a reporting standard and is an acronym for Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. The Key Documents section of the PRISMA website links to a checklist, flow diagram and explanatory notes. PRISMA is less useful for certain types of reviews, including those that are iterative.
  • eMERGe eMERGe is a reporting standard that has been developed for meta-ethnographies, a qualitative synthesis method.
  • ROSES: RepOrting standards for Systematic Evidence Syntheses Reporting standards, including forms and flow diagram, designed specifically for systematic reviews and maps in the field of conservation and environmental management.

Useful books about systematic reviews

can you do a literature review on a systematic review

Systematic approaches to a successful literature review

can you do a literature review on a systematic review

An introduction to systematic reviews

can you do a literature review on a systematic review

Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions

Systematic reviews: crd's guidance for undertaking reviews in health care.

can you do a literature review on a systematic review

Finding what works in health care: Standards for systematic reviews

Book cover image

Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences

Meta-analysis and research synthesis.

Book cover image

Research Synthesis and Meta-Analysis

Book cover image

Doing a Systematic Review

Literature reviews.

  • What is a literature review?
  • Why are literature reviews important?
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The Graduate Health & Life Sciences Research Library at Georgetown University Medical Center

Systematic reviews.

  • Should I do a systematic review?
  • Writing the Protocol
  • Building a Systematic Search
  • Where to Search
  • Managing Project Data
  • How can a DML librarian help?

Guides and Standards

  • The Cochrane Handbook The Cochrane Handbook has become the de facto standard for planning and carrying out a systematic review. Chapter 6, Searching for Studies, is most helpful in planning your review.
  • Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews The IOM standards promote objective, transparent, and scientifically valid systematic reviews. They address the entire systematic review process, from locating, screening, and selecting studies for the review, to synthesizing the findings (including meta-analysis) and assessing the overall quality of the body of evidence, to producing the final review report.
  • PRISMA Standards The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. A 27-item checklist, PRISMA focuses on randomized trials but can also be used as a basis for reporting systematic reviews of other types of research, particularly evaluations of interventions.

What is a systematic review?

A systematic literature review is a research methodology designed to answer a focused research question. Authors conduct a methodical and comprehensive literature synthesis focused on a well-formulated research question. Its aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic, including both published and unpublished studies. Systematic reviews are conducted in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making and identify gaps in research.  Every step of the review, including the search, must be documented for reproducibility. 

Researchers in medicine may be most familiar with Cochrane Reviews, which synthesize randomized controlled trials to evaluate specific medical interventions. Systematic reviews are conducted in many other fields, though the type of evidence analyzed varies with the research question. 

When to use systematic review methodology

Systematic reviews require more time and manpower than traditional literature reviews. Before beginning a systematic review, researchers should address these questions:

Is there is enough literature published on the topic to warrant a review? 

Systematic reviews are designed to distill the evidence from many studies into actionable insights. Is there a body of evidence available to analyze, or does more primary research need to be done?

Can your research question be answered by a systematic review?

Systematic review questions should be specific and clearly defined. Questions that fit the PICO (problem/patient, intervention, comparison, outcome) format are usually well-suited for the systematic review methodology. The research question determines the search strategy, inclusion criteria, and data that you extract from the selected studies, so it should be clearly defined at the start of the review process.

Do you have a protocol outlining the review plan?

The protocol is the roadmap for the review project. A good protocol outlines study methodology, includes the rationale for the systematic review, and describes the key question broken into PICO components. It is also a good place to plan out inclusion/exclusion criteria, databases that will be searched, data abstraction and management methods, and how the studies will be assessed for methodological quality.

Do you have a team of experts?

A systematic review is team effort. Having multiple reviewers minimizes bias and strengthens analysis. Teams are often composed of subject experts, two or more literature screeners, a librarian to conduct the search, and a statistician to analyze the data. 

Do you have the time that it takes to properly conduct a systematic review?  

Systematic reviews typically take 12-18 months. 

Do you have a method for discerning bias?  

There are many types of bias, including selection, performance, & reporting bias, and assessing the risk of bias of individual studies is an important part of your study design.

Can you afford to have articles in languages other than English translated?  

You should include all relevant studies in your systematic review, regardless of the language they were published in, so as to avoid language bias. 

Which review is right for you?

If your project does not meet the above criteria, there are many more options for conducting a synthesis of the literature. The chart below highlights several review methodologies. Reproduced from: Grant MJ, Booth A. A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Info Libr J. 2009 Jun;26(2):91-108. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x  . Review. PubMed PMID: 19490148 

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Literature Review vs Systematic Review

  • Literature Review vs. Systematic Review
  • Primary vs. Secondary Sources
  • Databases and Articles
  • Specific Journal or Article

Subject Guide

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Definitions

It’s common to confuse systematic and literature reviews because both are used to provide a summary of the existent literature or research on a specific topic. Regardless of this commonality, both types of review vary significantly. The following table provides a detailed explanation as well as the differences between systematic and literature reviews. 

Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. [figshare]. Available at:  http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.766364

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How to Write a Systematic Review of the Literature

Affiliations.

  • 1 1 Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA.
  • 2 2 University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA.
  • PMID: 29283007
  • DOI: 10.1177/1937586717747384

This article provides a step-by-step approach to conducting and reporting systematic literature reviews (SLRs) in the domain of healthcare design and discusses some of the key quality issues associated with SLRs. SLR, as the name implies, is a systematic way of collecting, critically evaluating, integrating, and presenting findings from across multiple research studies on a research question or topic of interest. SLR provides a way to assess the quality level and magnitude of existing evidence on a question or topic of interest. It offers a broader and more accurate level of understanding than a traditional literature review. A systematic review adheres to standardized methodologies/guidelines in systematic searching, filtering, reviewing, critiquing, interpreting, synthesizing, and reporting of findings from multiple publications on a topic/domain of interest. The Cochrane Collaboration is the most well-known and widely respected global organization producing SLRs within the healthcare field and a standard to follow for any researcher seeking to write a transparent and methodologically sound SLR. Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis (PRISMA), like the Cochrane Collaboration, was created by an international network of health-based collaborators and provides the framework for SLR to ensure methodological rigor and quality. The PRISMA statement is an evidence-based guide consisting of a checklist and flowchart intended to be used as tools for authors seeking to write SLR and meta-analyses.

Keywords: evidence based design; healthcare design; systematic literature review.

  • Evidence-Based Medicine* / organization & administration
  • Research Design*
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic*
  • Systematic review
  • Open access
  • Published: 19 February 2024

‘It depends’: what 86 systematic reviews tell us about what strategies to use to support the use of research in clinical practice

  • Annette Boaz   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0557-1294 1 ,
  • Juan Baeza 2 ,
  • Alec Fraser   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1121-1551 2 &
  • Erik Persson 3  

Implementation Science volume  19 , Article number:  15 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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The gap between research findings and clinical practice is well documented and a range of strategies have been developed to support the implementation of research into clinical practice. The objective of this study was to update and extend two previous reviews of systematic reviews of strategies designed to implement research evidence into clinical practice.

We developed a comprehensive systematic literature search strategy based on the terms used in the previous reviews to identify studies that looked explicitly at interventions designed to turn research evidence into practice. The search was performed in June 2022 in four electronic databases: Medline, Embase, Cochrane and Epistemonikos. We searched from January 2010 up to June 2022 and applied no language restrictions. Two independent reviewers appraised the quality of included studies using a quality assessment checklist. To reduce the risk of bias, papers were excluded following discussion between all members of the team. Data were synthesised using descriptive and narrative techniques to identify themes and patterns linked to intervention strategies, targeted behaviours, study settings and study outcomes.

We identified 32 reviews conducted between 2010 and 2022. The reviews are mainly of multi-faceted interventions ( n  = 20) although there are reviews focusing on single strategies (ICT, educational, reminders, local opinion leaders, audit and feedback, social media and toolkits). The majority of reviews report strategies achieving small impacts (normally on processes of care). There is much less evidence that these strategies have shifted patient outcomes. Furthermore, a lot of nuance lies behind these headline findings, and this is increasingly commented upon in the reviews themselves.

Combined with the two previous reviews, 86 systematic reviews of strategies to increase the implementation of research into clinical practice have been identified. We need to shift the emphasis away from isolating individual and multi-faceted interventions to better understanding and building more situated, relational and organisational capability to support the use of research in clinical practice. This will involve drawing on a wider range of research perspectives (including social science) in primary studies and diversifying the types of synthesis undertaken to include approaches such as realist synthesis which facilitate exploration of the context in which strategies are employed.

Peer Review reports

Contribution to the literature

Considerable time and money is invested in implementing and evaluating strategies to increase the implementation of research into clinical practice.

The growing body of evidence is not providing the anticipated clear lessons to support improved implementation.

Instead what is needed is better understanding and building more situated, relational and organisational capability to support the use of research in clinical practice.

This would involve a more central role in implementation science for a wider range of perspectives, especially from the social, economic, political and behavioural sciences and for greater use of different types of synthesis, such as realist synthesis.

Introduction

The gap between research findings and clinical practice is well documented and a range of interventions has been developed to increase the implementation of research into clinical practice [ 1 , 2 ]. In recent years researchers have worked to improve the consistency in the ways in which these interventions (often called strategies) are described to support their evaluation. One notable development has been the emergence of Implementation Science as a field focusing explicitly on “the scientific study of methods to promote the systematic uptake of research findings and other evidence-based practices into routine practice” ([ 3 ] p. 1). The work of implementation science focuses on closing, or at least narrowing, the gap between research and practice. One contribution has been to map existing interventions, identifying 73 discreet strategies to support research implementation [ 4 ] which have been grouped into 9 clusters [ 5 ]. The authors note that they have not considered the evidence of effectiveness of the individual strategies and that a next step is to understand better which strategies perform best in which combinations and for what purposes [ 4 ]. Other authors have noted that there is also scope to learn more from other related fields of study such as policy implementation [ 6 ] and to draw on methods designed to support the evaluation of complex interventions [ 7 ].

The increase in activity designed to support the implementation of research into practice and improvements in reporting provided the impetus for an update of a review of systematic reviews of the effectiveness of interventions designed to support the use of research in clinical practice [ 8 ] which was itself an update of the review conducted by Grimshaw and colleagues in 2001. The 2001 review [ 9 ] identified 41 reviews considering a range of strategies including educational interventions, audit and feedback, computerised decision support to financial incentives and combined interventions. The authors concluded that all the interventions had the potential to promote the uptake of evidence in practice, although no one intervention seemed to be more effective than the others in all settings. They concluded that combined interventions were more likely to be effective than single interventions. The 2011 review identified a further 13 systematic reviews containing 313 discrete primary studies. Consistent with the previous review, four main strategy types were identified: audit and feedback; computerised decision support; opinion leaders; and multi-faceted interventions (MFIs). Nine of the reviews reported on MFIs. The review highlighted the small effects of single interventions such as audit and feedback, computerised decision support and opinion leaders. MFIs claimed an improvement in effectiveness over single interventions, although effect sizes remained small to moderate and this improvement in effectiveness relating to MFIs has been questioned in a subsequent review [ 10 ]. In updating the review, we anticipated a larger pool of reviews and an opportunity to consolidate learning from more recent systematic reviews of interventions.

This review updates and extends our previous review of systematic reviews of interventions designed to implement research evidence into clinical practice. To identify potentially relevant peer-reviewed research papers, we developed a comprehensive systematic literature search strategy based on the terms used in the Grimshaw et al. [ 9 ] and Boaz, Baeza and Fraser [ 8 ] overview articles. To ensure optimal retrieval, our search strategy was refined with support from an expert university librarian, considering the ongoing improvements in the development of search filters for systematic reviews since our first review [ 11 ]. We also wanted to include technology-related terms (e.g. apps, algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence) to find studies that explored interventions based on the use of technological innovations as mechanistic tools for increasing the use of evidence into practice (see Additional file 1 : Appendix A for full search strategy).

The search was performed in June 2022 in the following electronic databases: Medline, Embase, Cochrane and Epistemonikos. We searched for articles published since the 2011 review. We searched from January 2010 up to June 2022 and applied no language restrictions. Reference lists of relevant papers were also examined.

We uploaded the results using EPPI-Reviewer, a web-based tool that facilitated semi-automation of the screening process and removal of duplicate studies. We made particular use of a priority screening function to reduce screening workload and avoid ‘data deluge’ [ 12 ]. Through machine learning, one reviewer screened a smaller number of records ( n  = 1200) to train the software to predict whether a given record was more likely to be relevant or irrelevant, thus pulling the relevant studies towards the beginning of the screening process. This automation did not replace manual work but helped the reviewer to identify eligible studies more quickly. During the selection process, we included studies that looked explicitly at interventions designed to turn research evidence into practice. Studies were included if they met the following pre-determined inclusion criteria:

The study was a systematic review

Search terms were included

Focused on the implementation of research evidence into practice

The methodological quality of the included studies was assessed as part of the review

Study populations included healthcare providers and patients. The EPOC taxonomy [ 13 ] was used to categorise the strategies. The EPOC taxonomy has four domains: delivery arrangements, financial arrangements, governance arrangements and implementation strategies. The implementation strategies domain includes 20 strategies targeted at healthcare workers. Numerous EPOC strategies were assessed in the review including educational strategies, local opinion leaders, reminders, ICT-focused approaches and audit and feedback. Some strategies that did not fit easily within the EPOC categories were also included. These were social media strategies and toolkits, and multi-faceted interventions (MFIs) (see Table  2 ). Some systematic reviews included comparisons of different interventions while other reviews compared one type of intervention against a control group. Outcomes related to improvements in health care processes or patient well-being. Numerous individual study types (RCT, CCT, BA, ITS) were included within the systematic reviews.

We excluded papers that:

Focused on changing patient rather than provider behaviour

Had no demonstrable outcomes

Made unclear or no reference to research evidence

The last of these criteria was sometimes difficult to judge, and there was considerable discussion amongst the research team as to whether the link between research evidence and practice was sufficiently explicit in the interventions analysed. As we discussed in the previous review [ 8 ] in the field of healthcare, the principle of evidence-based practice is widely acknowledged and tools to change behaviour such as guidelines are often seen to be an implicit codification of evidence, despite the fact that this is not always the case.

Reviewers employed a two-stage process to select papers for inclusion. First, all titles and abstracts were screened by one reviewer to determine whether the study met the inclusion criteria. Two papers [ 14 , 15 ] were identified that fell just before the 2010 cut-off. As they were not identified in the searches for the first review [ 8 ] they were included and progressed to assessment. Each paper was rated as include, exclude or maybe. The full texts of 111 relevant papers were assessed independently by at least two authors. To reduce the risk of bias, papers were excluded following discussion between all members of the team. 32 papers met the inclusion criteria and proceeded to data extraction. The study selection procedure is documented in a PRISMA literature flow diagram (see Fig.  1 ). We were able to include French, Spanish and Portuguese papers in the selection reflecting the language skills in the study team, but none of the papers identified met the inclusion criteria. Other non- English language papers were excluded.

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram. Source: authors

One reviewer extracted data on strategy type, number of included studies, local, target population, effectiveness and scope of impact from the included studies. Two reviewers then independently read each paper and noted key findings and broad themes of interest which were then discussed amongst the wider authorial team. Two independent reviewers appraised the quality of included studies using a Quality Assessment Checklist based on Oxman and Guyatt [ 16 ] and Francke et al. [ 17 ]. Each study was rated a quality score ranging from 1 (extensive flaws) to 7 (minimal flaws) (see Additional file 2 : Appendix B). All disagreements were resolved through discussion. Studies were not excluded in this updated overview based on methodological quality as we aimed to reflect the full extent of current research into this topic.

The extracted data were synthesised using descriptive and narrative techniques to identify themes and patterns in the data linked to intervention strategies, targeted behaviours, study settings and study outcomes.

Thirty-two studies were included in the systematic review. Table 1. provides a detailed overview of the included systematic reviews comprising reference, strategy type, quality score, number of included studies, local, target population, effectiveness and scope of impact (see Table  1. at the end of the manuscript). Overall, the quality of the studies was high. Twenty-three studies scored 7, six studies scored 6, one study scored 5, one study scored 4 and one study scored 3. The primary focus of the review was on reviews of effectiveness studies, but a small number of reviews did include data from a wider range of methods including qualitative studies which added to the analysis in the papers [ 18 , 19 , 20 , 21 ]. The majority of reviews report strategies achieving small impacts (normally on processes of care). There is much less evidence that these strategies have shifted patient outcomes. In this section, we discuss the different EPOC-defined implementation strategies in turn. Interestingly, we found only two ‘new’ approaches in this review that did not fit into the existing EPOC approaches. These are a review focused on the use of social media and a review considering toolkits. In addition to single interventions, we also discuss multi-faceted interventions. These were the most common intervention approach overall. A summary is provided in Table  2 .

Educational strategies

The overview identified three systematic reviews focusing on educational strategies. Grudniewicz et al. [ 22 ] explored the effectiveness of printed educational materials on primary care physician knowledge, behaviour and patient outcomes and concluded they were not effective in any of these aspects. Koota, Kääriäinen and Melender [ 23 ] focused on educational interventions promoting evidence-based practice among emergency room/accident and emergency nurses and found that interventions involving face-to-face contact led to significant or highly significant effects on patient benefits and emergency nurses’ knowledge, skills and behaviour. Interventions using written self-directed learning materials also led to significant improvements in nurses’ knowledge of evidence-based practice. Although the quality of the studies was high, the review primarily included small studies with low response rates, and many of them relied on self-assessed outcomes; consequently, the strength of the evidence for these outcomes is modest. Wu et al. [ 20 ] questioned if educational interventions aimed at nurses to support the implementation of evidence-based practice improve patient outcomes. Although based on evaluation projects and qualitative data, their results also suggest that positive changes on patient outcomes can be made following the implementation of specific evidence-based approaches (or projects). The differing positive outcomes for educational strategies aimed at nurses might indicate that the target audience is important.

Local opinion leaders

Flodgren et al. [ 24 ] was the only systemic review focusing solely on opinion leaders. The review found that local opinion leaders alone, or in combination with other interventions, can be effective in promoting evidence‐based practice, but this varies both within and between studies and the effect on patient outcomes is uncertain. The review found that, overall, any intervention involving opinion leaders probably improves healthcare professionals’ compliance with evidence-based practice but varies within and across studies. However, how opinion leaders had an impact could not be determined because of insufficient details were provided, illustrating that reporting specific details in published studies is important if diffusion of effective methods of increasing evidence-based practice is to be spread across a system. The usefulness of this review is questionable because it cannot provide evidence of what is an effective opinion leader, whether teams of opinion leaders or a single opinion leader are most effective, or the most effective methods used by opinion leaders.

Pantoja et al. [ 26 ] was the only systemic review focusing solely on manually generated reminders delivered on paper included in the overview. The review explored how these affected professional practice and patient outcomes. The review concluded that manually generated reminders delivered on paper as a single intervention probably led to small to moderate increases in adherence to clinical recommendations, and they could be used as a single quality improvement intervention. However, the authors indicated that this intervention would make little or no difference to patient outcomes. The authors state that such a low-tech intervention may be useful in low- and middle-income countries where paper records are more likely to be the norm.

ICT-focused approaches

The three ICT-focused reviews [ 14 , 27 , 28 ] showed mixed results. Jamal, McKenzie and Clark [ 14 ] explored the impact of health information technology on the quality of medical and health care. They examined the impact of electronic health record, computerised provider order-entry, or decision support system. This showed a positive improvement in adherence to evidence-based guidelines but not to patient outcomes. The number of studies included in the review was low and so a conclusive recommendation could not be reached based on this review. Similarly, Brown et al. [ 28 ] found that technology-enabled knowledge translation interventions may improve knowledge of health professionals, but all eight studies raised concerns of bias. The De Angelis et al. [ 27 ] review was more promising, reporting that ICT can be a good way of disseminating clinical practice guidelines but conclude that it is unclear which type of ICT method is the most effective.

Audit and feedback

Sykes, McAnuff and Kolehmainen [ 29 ] examined whether audit and feedback were effective in dementia care and concluded that it remains unclear which ingredients of audit and feedback are successful as the reviewed papers illustrated large variations in the effectiveness of interventions using audit and feedback.

Non-EPOC listed strategies: social media, toolkits

There were two new (non-EPOC listed) intervention types identified in this review compared to the 2011 review — fewer than anticipated. We categorised a third — ‘care bundles’ [ 36 ] as a multi-faceted intervention due to its description in practice and a fourth — ‘Technology Enhanced Knowledge Transfer’ [ 28 ] was classified as an ICT-focused approach. The first new strategy was identified in Bhatt et al.’s [ 30 ] systematic review of the use of social media for the dissemination of clinical practice guidelines. They reported that the use of social media resulted in a significant improvement in knowledge and compliance with evidence-based guidelines compared with more traditional methods. They noted that a wide selection of different healthcare professionals and patients engaged with this type of social media and its global reach may be significant for low- and middle-income countries. This review was also noteworthy for developing a simple stepwise method for using social media for the dissemination of clinical practice guidelines. However, it is debatable whether social media can be classified as an intervention or just a different way of delivering an intervention. For example, the review discussed involving opinion leaders and patient advocates through social media. However, this was a small review that included only five studies, so further research in this new area is needed. Yamada et al. [ 31 ] draw on 39 studies to explore the application of toolkits, 18 of which had toolkits embedded within larger KT interventions, and 21 of which evaluated toolkits as standalone interventions. The individual component strategies of the toolkits were highly variable though the authors suggest that they align most closely with educational strategies. The authors conclude that toolkits as either standalone strategies or as part of MFIs hold some promise for facilitating evidence use in practice but caution that the quality of many of the primary studies included is considered weak limiting these findings.

Multi-faceted interventions

The majority of the systematic reviews ( n  = 20) reported on more than one intervention type. Some of these systematic reviews focus exclusively on multi-faceted interventions, whilst others compare different single or combined interventions aimed at achieving similar outcomes in particular settings. While these two approaches are often described in a similar way, they are actually quite distinct from each other as the former report how multiple strategies may be strategically combined in pursuance of an agreed goal, whilst the latter report how different strategies may be incidentally used in sometimes contrasting settings in the pursuance of similar goals. Ariyo et al. [ 35 ] helpfully summarise five key elements often found in effective MFI strategies in LMICs — but which may also be transferrable to HICs. First, effective MFIs encourage a multi-disciplinary approach acknowledging the roles played by different professional groups to collectively incorporate evidence-informed practice. Second, they utilise leadership drawing on a wide set of clinical and non-clinical actors including managers and even government officials. Third, multiple types of educational practices are utilised — including input from patients as stakeholders in some cases. Fourth, protocols, checklists and bundles are used — most effectively when local ownership is encouraged. Finally, most MFIs included an emphasis on monitoring and evaluation [ 35 ]. In contrast, other studies offer little information about the nature of the different MFI components of included studies which makes it difficult to extrapolate much learning from them in relation to why or how MFIs might affect practice (e.g. [ 28 , 38 ]). Ultimately, context matters, which some review authors argue makes it difficult to say with real certainty whether single or MFI strategies are superior (e.g. [ 21 , 27 ]). Taking all the systematic reviews together we may conclude that MFIs appear to be more likely to generate positive results than single interventions (e.g. [ 34 , 45 ]) though other reviews should make us cautious (e.g. [ 32 , 43 ]).

While multi-faceted interventions still seem to be more effective than single-strategy interventions, there were important distinctions between how the results of reviews of MFIs are interpreted in this review as compared to the previous reviews [ 8 , 9 ], reflecting greater nuance and debate in the literature. This was particularly noticeable where the effectiveness of MFIs was compared to single strategies, reflecting developments widely discussed in previous studies [ 10 ]. We found that most systematic reviews are bounded by their clinical, professional, spatial, system, or setting criteria and often seek to draw out implications for the implementation of evidence in their areas of specific interest (such as nursing or acute care). Frequently this means combining all relevant studies to explore the respective foci of each systematic review. Therefore, most reviews we categorised as MFIs actually include highly variable numbers and combinations of intervention strategies and highly heterogeneous original study designs. This makes statistical analyses of the type used by Squires et al. [ 10 ] on the three reviews in their paper not possible. Further, it also makes extrapolating findings and commenting on broad themes complex and difficult. This may suggest that future research should shift its focus from merely examining ‘what works’ to ‘what works where and what works for whom’ — perhaps pointing to the value of realist approaches to these complex review topics [ 48 , 49 ] and other more theory-informed approaches [ 50 ].

Some reviews have a relatively small number of studies (i.e. fewer than 10) and the authors are often understandably reluctant to engage with wider debates about the implications of their findings. Other larger studies do engage in deeper discussions about internal comparisons of findings across included studies and also contextualise these in wider debates. Some of the most informative studies (e.g. [ 35 , 40 ]) move beyond EPOC categories and contextualise MFIs within wider systems thinking and implementation theory. This distinction between MFIs and single interventions can actually be very useful as it offers lessons about the contexts in which individual interventions might have bounded effectiveness (i.e. educational interventions for individual change). Taken as a whole, this may also then help in terms of how and when to conjoin single interventions into effective MFIs.

In the two previous reviews, a consistent finding was that MFIs were more effective than single interventions [ 8 , 9 ]. However, like Squires et al. [ 10 ] this overview is more equivocal on this important issue. There are four points which may help account for the differences in findings in this regard. Firstly, the diversity of the systematic reviews in terms of clinical topic or setting is an important factor. Secondly, there is heterogeneity of the studies within the included systematic reviews themselves. Thirdly, there is a lack of consistency with regards to the definition and strategies included within of MFIs. Finally, there are epistemological differences across the papers and the reviews. This means that the results that are presented depend on the methods used to measure, report, and synthesise them. For instance, some reviews highlight that education strategies can be useful to improve provider understanding — but without wider organisational or system-level change, they may struggle to deliver sustained transformation [ 19 , 44 ].

It is also worth highlighting the importance of the theory of change underlying the different interventions. Where authors of the systematic reviews draw on theory, there is space to discuss/explain findings. We note a distinction between theoretical and atheoretical systematic review discussion sections. Atheoretical reviews tend to present acontextual findings (for instance, one study found very positive results for one intervention, and this gets highlighted in the abstract) whilst theoretically informed reviews attempt to contextualise and explain patterns within the included studies. Theory-informed systematic reviews seem more likely to offer more profound and useful insights (see [ 19 , 35 , 40 , 43 , 45 ]). We find that the most insightful systematic reviews of MFIs engage in theoretical generalisation — they attempt to go beyond the data of individual studies and discuss the wider implications of the findings of the studies within their reviews drawing on implementation theory. At the same time, they highlight the active role of context and the wider relational and system-wide issues linked to implementation. It is these types of investigations that can help providers further develop evidence-based practice.

This overview has identified a small, but insightful set of papers that interrogate and help theorise why, how, for whom, and in which circumstances it might be the case that MFIs are superior (see [ 19 , 35 , 40 ] once more). At the level of this overview — and in most of the systematic reviews included — it appears to be the case that MFIs struggle with the question of attribution. In addition, there are other important elements that are often unmeasured, or unreported (e.g. costs of the intervention — see [ 40 ]). Finally, the stronger systematic reviews [ 19 , 35 , 40 , 43 , 45 ] engage with systems issues, human agency and context [ 18 ] in a way that was not evident in the systematic reviews identified in the previous reviews [ 8 , 9 ]. The earlier reviews lacked any theory of change that might explain why MFIs might be more effective than single ones — whereas now some systematic reviews do this, which enables them to conclude that sometimes single interventions can still be more effective.

As Nilsen et al. ([ 6 ] p. 7) note ‘Study findings concerning the effectiveness of various approaches are continuously synthesized and assembled in systematic reviews’. We may have gone as far as we can in understanding the implementation of evidence through systematic reviews of single and multi-faceted interventions and the next step would be to conduct more research exploring the complex and situated nature of evidence used in clinical practice and by particular professional groups. This would further build on the nuanced discussion and conclusion sections in a subset of the papers we reviewed. This might also support the field to move away from isolating individual implementation strategies [ 6 ] to explore the complex processes involving a range of actors with differing capacities [ 51 ] working in diverse organisational cultures. Taxonomies of implementation strategies do not fully account for the complex process of implementation, which involves a range of different actors with different capacities and skills across multiple system levels. There is plenty of work to build on, particularly in the social sciences, which currently sits at the margins of debates about evidence implementation (see for example, Normalisation Process Theory [ 52 ]).

There are several changes that we have identified in this overview of systematic reviews in comparison to the review we published in 2011 [ 8 ]. A consistent and welcome finding is that the overall quality of the systematic reviews themselves appears to have improved between the two reviews, although this is not reflected upon in the papers. This is exhibited through better, clearer reporting mechanisms in relation to the mechanics of the reviews, alongside a greater attention to, and deeper description of, how potential biases in included papers are discussed. Additionally, there is an increased, but still limited, inclusion of original studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries as opposed to just high-income countries. Importantly, we found that many of these systematic reviews are attuned to, and comment upon the contextual distinctions of pursuing evidence-informed interventions in health care settings in different economic settings. Furthermore, systematic reviews included in this updated article cover a wider set of clinical specialities (both within and beyond hospital settings) and have a focus on a wider set of healthcare professions — discussing both similarities, differences and inter-professional challenges faced therein, compared to the earlier reviews. These wider ranges of studies highlight that a particular intervention or group of interventions may work well for one professional group but be ineffective for another. This diversity of study settings allows us to consider the important role context (in its many forms) plays on implementing evidence into practice. Examining the complex and varied context of health care will help us address what Nilsen et al. ([ 6 ] p. 1) described as, ‘society’s health problems [that] require research-based knowledge acted on by healthcare practitioners together with implementation of political measures from governmental agencies’. This will help us shift implementation science to move, ‘beyond a success or failure perspective towards improved analysis of variables that could explain the impact of the implementation process’ ([ 6 ] p. 2).

This review brings together 32 papers considering individual and multi-faceted interventions designed to support the use of evidence in clinical practice. The majority of reviews report strategies achieving small impacts (normally on processes of care). There is much less evidence that these strategies have shifted patient outcomes. Combined with the two previous reviews, 86 systematic reviews of strategies to increase the implementation of research into clinical practice have been conducted. As a whole, this substantial body of knowledge struggles to tell us more about the use of individual and MFIs than: ‘it depends’. To really move forwards in addressing the gap between research evidence and practice, we may need to shift the emphasis away from isolating individual and multi-faceted interventions to better understanding and building more situated, relational and organisational capability to support the use of research in clinical practice. This will involve drawing on a wider range of perspectives, especially from the social, economic, political and behavioural sciences in primary studies and diversifying the types of synthesis undertaken to include approaches such as realist synthesis which facilitate exploration of the context in which strategies are employed. Harvey et al. [ 53 ] suggest that when context is likely to be critical to implementation success there are a range of primary research approaches (participatory research, realist evaluation, developmental evaluation, ethnography, quality/ rapid cycle improvement) that are likely to be appropriate and insightful. While these approaches often form part of implementation studies in the form of process evaluations, they are usually relatively small scale in relation to implementation research as a whole. As a result, the findings often do not make it into the subsequent systematic reviews. This review provides further evidence that we need to bring qualitative approaches in from the periphery to play a central role in many implementation studies and subsequent evidence syntheses. It would be helpful for systematic reviews, at the very least, to include more detail about the interventions and their implementation in terms of how and why they worked.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Abbreviations

Before and after study

Controlled clinical trial

Effective Practice and Organisation of Care

High-income countries

Information and Communications Technology

Interrupted time series

Knowledge translation

Low- and middle-income countries

Randomised controlled trial

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Professor Kathryn Oliver for her support in the planning the review, Professor Steve Hanney for reading and commenting on the final manuscript and the staff at LSHTM library for their support in planning and conducting the literature search.

This study was supported by LSHTM’s Research England QR strategic priorities funding allocation and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration South London (NIHR ARC South London) at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Grant number NIHR200152. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR, the Department of Health and Social Care or Research England.

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Boaz, A., Baeza, J., Fraser, A. et al. ‘It depends’: what 86 systematic reviews tell us about what strategies to use to support the use of research in clinical practice. Implementation Sci 19 , 15 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13012-024-01337-z

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The effectiveness, implementation, and experiences of peer support approaches for mental health: a systematic umbrella review

  • Ruth E. Cooper 1   na1 ,
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Peer support for mental health is recommended across international policy guidance and provision. Our systematic umbrella review summarises evidence on the effectiveness, implementation, and experiences of paid peer support approaches for mental health.

We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, The Campbell Collaboration, and The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2012–2022) for reviews of paid peer support interventions for mental health. The AMSTAR2 assessed quality. Results were synthesised narratively, with implementation reported using the CFIR (Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research). The protocol was registered with PROSPERO (registration number: CRD42022362099).

We included 35 reviews (426 primary studies, n  = 95–40,927 participants): systematic reviews with ( n  = 13) or without ( n  = 13) meta-analysis, or with qualitative synthesis ( n  = 3), scoping reviews ( n  = 6). Most reviews were low or critically low (97%) quality, one review was high quality. Effectiveness was investigated in 23 reviews. Results were mixed; there was some evidence from meta-analyses that peer support may improve depression symptoms (particularly perinatal depression), self-efficacy, and recovery. Factors promoting successful implementation, investigated in 9 reviews, included adequate training and supervision, a recovery-oriented workplace, strong leadership, and a supportive and trusting workplace culture with effective collaboration. Barriers included lack of time, resources and funding, and lack of recognised peer support worker (PSW) certification. Experiences of peer support were explored in 11 reviews, with 3 overarching themes: (i) what the PSW role can bring, including recovery and improved wellbeing for service users and PSWs; (ii) confusion over the PSW role, including role ambiguity and unclear boundaries; and (iii) organisational challenges and impact, including low pay, negative non-peer staff attitudes, and lack of support and training.

Conclusions

Peer support may be effective at improving some clinical outcomes, self-efficacy, and recovery. Certain populations, e.g. perinatal populations, may especially benefit from peer support. Potential strategies to successfully implement PSWs include co-production, clearly defined PSW roles, a receptive hierarchical structure and staff, appropriate PSW and staff training with clinical and/or peer supervision alongside safeguarding. Services could benefit from clear, coproduced, setting specific implementation guidelines for PSW. PSW roles tend to be poorly defined and associations between PSW intervention content and impacts need further investigation. Future research should reflect the priorities of providers/service users involved in peer support.

Peer Review reports

Peer support in mental health care is a recovery-orientated approach delivered by individuals who have lived experience of mental health difficulties (as service users, carers, parents or supporters). Peer support workers (PSWs) are employed to draw on these experiences to support mental health service users or carers of people with mental health conditions [ 1 , 2 ]. As such, PSWs are uniquely positioned to facilitate recovery through empathic engagement with service users and their support networks. The success of peer support is thought to be based in the sharing of lived experiences and mental health knowledge and through interpersonal connection [ 3 , 4 ]. Across diagnoses, peer support may promote recovery through the modelling of coping strategies, and by providing hope and an example of recovery to those dealing with mental health difficulties [ 5 ].

Peer support has been utilised across various populations and types of service, for example in services for early intervention in psychosis [ 6 ], for people with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health difficulties [ 7 ], and in community interventions to reduce mental health inpatient admissions [ 8 ]. The format of peer support varies across services, for example it may involve one-to-one or group sessions, online or face-to-face delivery, unstructured open-ended conversations or more structured manualised support, or activities such as walking groups [ 9 , 10 ]. Peer support may be delivered by trained peer support staff or on a more ad hoc basis among peers [ 11 ]. Peer support for mental health takes place within mental health services in both statutory and voluntary sector settings [ 11 ]. Although PSWs may be paid or unpaid [ 6 , 12 ], paid roles have become increasingly available in mental health care settings [ 13 ]. Professionalising PSW roles as paid demonstrates the value of the role and appropriately rewards work done, should ensure formal training, supervision and management, and may help to clarify the boundaries of the role [ 14 ].

Service user networks and researchers in relevant fields have strongly advocated for provision of peer support [ 14 , 15 ], and peer support is now recognised and recommended across international mental health policy guidance, reflecting an increased understanding of the value of embedding lived experience support in formal mental health services [ 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 ]. In the UK, peer support is currently being expanded in the NHS [ 16 ].

There have been many reviews of the peer support literature separately evaluating the efficacy, implementation, and experiences of peer support from a variety of different perspectives (e.g. [ 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 ]). Given the numerous and sometimes inconclusive results from existing reviews on this topic, our research group, the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit, agreed with policy makers in England to conduct an umbrella review of peer support to provide clinicians, policy makers and researchers with an overall assessment on the evidence available, comparing results between reviews, while taking the quality of these reviews into account [ 25 , 26 ]. The aim of this systematic umbrella review is to collate, synthesise and summarise the available evidence from published reviews to address the following research questions:

What is the effectiveness (e.g. clinical, social, functional) and cost-effectiveness of paid peer support approaches for mental health?

What influences the implementation of peer support approaches for mental health?

What are the experiences of peer support approaches for mental health (e.g. of acceptability) from the perspective of PSWs, healthcare practitioners, service users, carers?

This umbrella review was conducted by the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit (MHPRU), based at King’s College London and University College London, which delivers evidence to inform government and NHS policy in England, agreeing a programme of rapid research with policymakers.

Study design and protocol

We conducted a systematic umbrella review following guidance from Fusar-Poli et al. [ 27 ] and Cochrane [ 28 ]. The review is reported according to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 1 for the PRISMA checklist) [ 29 ]. The protocol was registered with PROSPERO (registration number: CRD42022362099) [ 30 ]. One amendment was made to the protocol after registration. We amended the ‘intervention’ section to state that reviews were excluded if the majority of interventions did not meet eligibility criteria, e.g. because we found that reviews often included paid and unpaid peer support interventions and did not report results separately.

Lived experience researcher involvement

Members of the MHPRU Lived Experience Working Group (LEWG), who collectively have substantial experience of delivering or receiving peer support, contributed extensively to this review, including protocol development, study selection, data extraction, quality appraisal, data synthesis, drafting the manuscript and lived experience commentary, and attending working group meetings.

Eligibility criteria

The eligibility criteria are detailed in full in the protocol [ 30 ]. In summary, we included:

Study designs : Published, peer-reviewed systematic, scoping or realist reviews which synthesised quantitative or qualitative data (narratively or formally using, e.g. a meta-analysis or meta-synthesis) that examined outcomes or experiences relevant to our research questions.

Intervention : We defined peer support as ‘involving a person who has lived experience of mental health condition(s), or caring for those with mental health conditions, being employed to use and draw on their experiences and empathy to support service users who have mental health conditions or carers or parents of people with mental health conditions.’ Eligible peer support approaches were paid, meaning that the PSW was paid for their work, and delivered face-to-face or remotely, for people with mental health conditions or for carers of people with mental health conditions, across any mental healthcare settings. Peer support approaches were ineligible if the PSWs were not in a dedicated peer support role, if they were primarily for physical health, or automated (i.e. peer support ‘bots’ or avatars). We excluded reviews where over 50% of primary studies in the review did not meet eligibility criteria, e.g. if the majority of people delivering the interventions were unpaid.

Population : Children, young people and adults with a mental health condition (including substance use disorders), carers, paid PSWs and mental healthcare practitioners working alongside PSWs. We excluded service users with a primary diagnosis of an organic mental disorder (e.g. dementia), neurodevelopmental disorders, acquired cognitive impairment and adjustment disorders.

Outcome measures : Included reviews reported outcomes or data on at least one of the following peer support related outcomes that addressed our research questions: (i) clinical outcomes, (ii) economic or cost-effectiveness, (iii) recovery outcomes, e.g. hope, empowerment, goal-attainment, quality of life, (iv) social outcomes, (v) implementation outcomes and barriers and facilitators to implementation, (vi) experiences of delivering, receiving or working alongside peer support and (vii) theories of what works for whom in peer support.

Information sources and search strategy

We combined terms for peer support, reviews and mental health conditions using Boolean operators (AND, OR). We searched the following databases: MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, The Campbell Collaboration and The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 2 for full search strategy). Searches were run from January 2012 to November 2022 as these reviews will include primary research published before 2012 [ 31 ]. There was no time limit for the primary papers in the included reviews. We had no language restrictions.

Selection process

Reviewers (KS, RC, JG, RS, RA, KM, PS, SA) screened titles and abstracts, and subsequently full texts. To ensure consistent application of eligibility criteria all reviewers initially independently screened the same ten titles and abstracts and discussed inclusion/exclusion. The remaining titles and abstracts were then screened. Records were double screened blind by two reviewers at both the title and abstract (94% agreement) and full text (86% agreement) stages. All disagreements were resolved through discussion with the study team.

Data extraction

Data extraction was completed in Microsoft Excel by the review team (RC, KS, KM, PS, JG, RS, PB, RA). The data used in the paper were checked by another member of the review team. The extracted data included basic information about reviews (e.g. number of included studies, number of participants, review type, aim/objectives), basic information about primary studies (e.g. references, designs), search strategy (e.g. databases searched, eligibility criteria), population (e.g. gender, age), peer support approach (e.g. peer support type and description), type of comparator, additional information (e.g. quality appraisal methods, review author conclusions), primary and secondary outcomes of systematic review or qualitative results.

Quality appraisal of included reviews

The quality of included reviews was independently assessed by reviewers (RC, KS, KM, PS, JG, RS, PB, RA) using the AMSTAR 2 (A MeaSurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews), a 16-point tool for assessment of the methodological quality of systematic reviews [ 32 ]. We adapted the AMSTAR 2 to apply for scoping reviews and systematic reviews of qualitative data (described in full in Additional file 1 : Appendix 3). The following questions were adapted: (1) PICO criteria, (2) Protocol requirements, (8) Detail of included studies, (9) Risk of Bias requirement. Two reviewers (KS, AG) 100% double-scored reviews blind with any outstanding disagreements resolved through discussion between AG, KS, and RC. Overall ratings for each study were calculated according to guidance [ 32 ], based on 7 critical domains and 6 non-critical domains within the AMSTAR 2 tool. Studies with no or one non-critical weakness and no critical flaws were rated as high quality. Studies with more than one non-critical weakness and no critical weaknesses were rated as moderate quality. Studies with one critical flaw irrespective of non-critical weaknesses were rated as low quality, and those with more than one critical flaw irrespective of non-critical weaknesses were rated as critically low quality. The AMSTAR 2 guidance [ 32 ] states that reviews of critically low quality should not be relied on for comprehensive and accurate summaries of the literature.

Synthesis methods

Rq 1: what is the effectiveness (e.g. clinical, social, functional) and cost-effectiveness of paid peer support approaches for mental health.

Data were tabulated and summarised narratively by two researchers (KS, AG); effectiveness meta-analysis data calculated from two or more studies were tabulated separately from non-meta-analysis effectiveness outcomes. Review outcomes were similar, but not similar enough to combine meaningfully in a meta-analysis. Effect sizes (with 95% CIs and p -values) were reported along with I 2 statistic (with 95% CIs, p -values, χ 2 , and degrees of freedom) where available. We did not tabulate data for subgroup analyses.

RQ 2: What influences the implementation of peer support approaches for mental health?

Outcomes were tabulated according to the main domains in the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR) [ 33 ]. The CFIR provides a comprehensive framework, composed of 5 domains, associated with the effective implementation of interventions [ 33 ]. The 5 domains are as follows: Innovation (the ‘thing’ being implemented); Outer setting (the setting in which the inner setting exists, e.g. hospital system); Inner setting (the setting in which the innovation is implemented, e.g. hospital); Individuals (the roles and characteristics of individuals); Implementation process (the activities and strategies used to implement the innovation) [ 33 ]. Synthesis was conducted using a collaborative process involving one member of the study team (RA) and one lived experience researcher (PS).

RQ 3: What are the experiences of peer support approaches for mental health (e.g. of acceptability) from the perspective of PSWs, healthcare practitioners, service users and carers?

Experiences were synthesised narratively, by three researchers, including two lived experience researchers (TJ, KM, RC) [ 34 ]. Themes from reviews which were identified as addressing research question 3 were extracted and similar themes across the reviews were grouped together. Each group was accounted for using an existing theme from one or more of the reviews or if this was not possible a new theme was developed. Three overarching themes were identified through iterative scrutiny of the data and discussion between TJ, KM, and RC. A summary of the common themes across the reviews, grouped under the three overarching themes, was then developed, including highlighting contrasting findings.

Study selection

The search strategy identified 777 references to be screened (a further 2 papers were identified through other methods); 93 full text articles were assessed for eligibility with 57 excluded (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 4 for reasons for exclusion). Thirty-five reviews (reported in 36 papers) were included (see Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram [ 29 ]

Characteristics of included reviews

Review characteristics are detailed in Table  1 . Of the 35 included reviews, 13 were systematic reviews with meta-analyses, 13 were systematic reviews without meta-analyses, 3 were systematic reviews with a qualitative synthesis and 6 were scoping reviews. The individual reviews included between 95 and 40,927 participants; 6 reviews did not report the number of participants. For reviews where the population were service users, almost all were categorised as adults with mental health problems. Thirteen reviews specified that participants had severe mental illness (SMI) diagnoses [ 1 , 21 , 22 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 40 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 , 45 ], six reviews explicitly included studies with participants accessing mental health services [ 22 , 37 , 38 , 43 , 45 ] [ 46 ], three reviews were conducted in perinatal populations [ 47 , 48 , 49 ], three reviews included participants with any/common mental health conditions [ 50 , 51 , 52 ], four reviews included participants with substance use disorders [ 1 , 38 , 53 , 54 ], two reviews included participants with eating disorders [ 55 , 56 ], one included people experiencing suicidality [ 57 ] and one included articles on peer support for crisis management [ 58 ]. The samples in the remaining reviews were PSWs and various stakeholders (e.g. non-peer staff, service users) [ 23 , 24 , 34 , 59 , 60 , 61 , 62 , 63 , 64 ]. Most reviews included interventions involving any form of peer support, individual, group or combined, although three reviews looked at group peer support alone [ 35 , 43 , 49 ], and three reviews looked at individual peer support alone [ 1 , 40 , 45 ]. Reviews looked at peer support delivered in-person, online or over the phone, and surveyed a range of approaches including both structured and unstructured peer support (see Table  1 ). The reviews included 426 primary studies. We assessed study overlap; most primary studies ( n  = 300) were only included in one review; however, many primary studies were included twice ( n  = 72), three times ( n  = 18) to a maximum of nine times ( n  = 1) (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 5 for overlapping studies). Only 1 review reported that people with lived experience were involved in the review [ 57 ]. Only 2 reviews assessed certainty of evidence (using GRADE) [ 21 , 22 ].

Most reviews were appraised as low or critically low (97%) quality and one review was appraised as high quality. The most common weaknesses were in critical domains concerning registering protocols before commencement of the review (21 studies), justification of excluding individual studies (28 studies) and considering risk of bias when interpreting results (13 studies). Reviews without meta-analyses were not scored in the critical domains assessing meta-analytical method or publication bias. There were 13 studies with meta-analyses assessed in these two domains: two of these exhibited one critical weakness and two exhibited two critical weaknesses. As scoping reviews are intended to provide overviews of existing literature regardless of risk of bias [ 65 ], scoping reviews were not scored in the critical domain concerning risk of bias assessment techniques (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 3 for adjustments to quality appraisal for scoping and qualitative reviews). Of the 29 reviews that were eligible to be scored in this domain, 10 exhibited a critical weakness. The review eliciting high confidence was a Cochrane review [ 21 ]. No reviews were rated as moderate. AMSTAR 2 ratings are detailed in Table  1 and in full in Additional file 1 : Appendix 3.

Results of synthesis

Rq1: what is the effectiveness (e.g. clinical, social, functional) and cost-effectiveness of paid peer support approaches for mental health.

Effectiveness outcomes were reported in 23 reviews (66% of total). A wide variety of clinical, recovery and psychosocial effectiveness outcomes were reported across both meta-analysis [ 21 , 22 , 37 , 40 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 , 45 , 47 , 48 , 51 , 52 ] and narrative results [ 1 , 21 , 22 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 40 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 , 48 , 50 , 51 , 53 , 54 , 56 , 57 , 58 , 60 ]. Comparator groups also varied across the primary studies included in the reviews, including Treatment as Usual (TaU), active controls (e.g. a comparable standard treatment) and waitlist control groups.

All outcomes except for one (family or carer use of formal community support services; [ 44 ]) were service user outcomes, rather than carer, staff or PSW outcomes. Outcomes from systematic reviews with meta-analysis are reported in Tables  2 , 3 and 4 . Effectiveness results from reviews not including meta-analysis are summarised at the end of this section and reported in full in Additional file 1 : Appendix 6. Evidence was heterogenous across all outcomes and reviews, with many analyses reporting no effect. In the meta-analysis results, there was often notable heterogeneity. There was limited data on cost and cost-effectiveness, but the evidence available from three systematic reviews without meta-analyses (See Additional file 1 : Appendix 6) suggested that peer support interventions were low cost and cost-saving [ 38 , 48 , 50 ].

Results from meta-analyses

Clinical outcomes.

For depression outcomes, evidence from two reviews with meta-analyses suggested that peer support is effective in improving perinatal depression [ 47 , 48 ]. Three reviews of peer support for adults and adolescents with mental health problems including those with SMI diagnoses reported no effect on depression post-intervention [ 22 , 35 , 43 ], where two of these reviews looked at group-based peer support alone [ 35 , 43 ]. Two of these reviews reported follow-up results; one review of group peer support for adults with any mental health condition continued to find no effect at 3–6 months follow-up [ 35 ], while the other involving adults with SMI reported improvements in depression and anxiety at 6 months follow-up, despite reporting no effect at post-intervention [ 22 ]. One review [ 52 ] measured clinical recovery in adults with any mental health diagnosis, reporting improvements post-intervention and at 6–9-month follow-up, but no improvement at 12–18-month follow-up.

Most evidence regarding mental health symptom severity among adults and adolescents with mental health diagnoses or who were using mental health services suggested no effect [ 22 , 35 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 ], other than for perinatal depression as previously summarised. One review [ 40 ] of individual peer support for adults with primarily SMI diagnoses reported improvements in symptom severity, while another involving adults with SMI [ 44 ] reported symptom improvements following family-led peer support, but no improvement following individual-led peer support. Results for service use varied depending on the measure, for example, peer support was associated with reduced risk of hospitalisation [ 44 ], including after a follow-up period [ 45 ], but no effect was found regarding length of stay [ 41 , 42 ].

All reviews providing meta-analytic evidence relevant to this question were rated low or critically low quality, except from one high-quality review [ 21 ] which found no effect of peer support on patient activation between 1 and 6 months follow-up (a person’s perceived ability to manage their illness and their approach to healthcare) in adults with schizophrenia diagnoses or similar SMI.

Recovery outcomes

Of the seven reviews with meta-analyses reporting data on overall self-reported recovery, five reported improvements in recovery in adults with mental health diagnoses including SMI [ 22 , 35 , 40 , 44 , 45 ]. Two studies found effects for individual peer support interventions alone [ 40 , 45 ], and one reported an effect for group-based peer support alone [ 35 ]. Only two reviews reported no effect [ 21 , 43 ], where one included studies of adults with SMI in both individual and group-based peer support [ 21 ], and the other involved studies with adults and adolescents with any mental health problem in group-based peer support alone [ 43 ].

Three reviews reported follow-up data showing continued improvements for adults with mental health diagnoses including SMI at follow-ups of 6 months [ 22 ], 3–6 months [ 35 ] and 12–18 months [ 45 ], the former and the latter reviewing individual and group peer support, and the second focussing on group peer support alone. One further review reported no improvements at medium-term follow-up (1–6 months) [ 21 ]. One review of adults with any mental health diagnosis identified improvements in personal recovery post-intervention, but not at 6–9 or 12–18 months follow-up, and found no improvements in functional recovery post-intervention or at 12–18 months follow-up, but did report improvements at 6–9 months follow-up [ 52 ].

All reviews providing meta-analytic evidence for these outcomes were rated as critically low or low quality, except for one [ 21 ] which was rated high quality. Based on evidence from three studies, this latter review [ 21 ] found no effect of peer support on recovery in the medium term for adults with schizophrenia diagnoses or similar SMI.

Psychosocial outcomes

Evidence regarding hope or hopefulness was mixed. Four reviews with meta-analyses suggested that peer support resulted in improvements in adults with SMI [ 22 , 37 , 40 , 44 ], where one of these studies looked at individual peer support alone [ 40 ] and the rest included both individual and group peer support. However, three reviews of studies including SMI and mixed mental health diagnoses samples reported no effect [ 21 , 35 , 43 ], where two of these reviews focussed on group-based peer support alone [ 35 , 43 ]. One study [ 22 ] followed up adults with SMI and those using secondary MH services at 3–6 months and found continued improvements in hope. However, another review investigating longer-term outcomes (over 6 months) in adults with SMI found no effect [ 21 ].

Improvements in empowerment were evidenced by two reviews with meta-analyses [ 40 , 51 ] of studies involving adults with any mental health diagnosis including SMI. No effects were reported in four reviews [ 22 , 35 , 43 , 44 ]. One of the meta-analyses finding positive effects of peer support on empowerment looked at individual peer support alone [ 40 ], whereas two of the meta-analyses with no effect solely involved group-based peer support [ 35 , 43 ]. Three studies reported follow-up data. Two showed improvements at 6 months in adults with SMI [ 22 ] and at 6–12 months follow-up among adults using mental health services with any diagnoses [ 45 ]. The other showed no improvements from group-based peer support only in adults with mental health diagnoses including SMI between 3 weeks and 6 months follow-up [ 35 ].

Quality of life reportedly improved in two reviews with meta-analyses [ 37 , 44 ] of studies involving adults with SMI, while there was no evidence of improvement in one other with an SMI sample [ 22 ]. The two studies which reported follow-up data continued to find no effect [ 22 , 45 ].

There were improvements in self-efficacy in adults with any mental health problem in all three reviews with meta-analyses reporting this outcome [ 43 , 44 , 51 ]. Decreases in self-stigma and stigma-related stress in adults and adolescents with any mental health problem were found by one review with meta-analysis of group-based peer support [ 43 ]. There was no evidence for peer support improving satisfaction with care [ 22 , 41 , 42 , 44 , 45 ] or relational outcomes (including social support and network) and building relationships (both personally and with staff) [ 41 , 42 , 44 , 45 ].

All reviews providing meta-analytic evidence for these outcomes were rated as critically low or low quality, except one high-quality review [ 21 ] which found no effect of peer support on hope in adults with schizophrenia diagnoses or similar SMI in the medium or long term.

Summary of results from systematic reviews without meta-analysis

Effectiveness results from systematic reviews without meta-analyses are tabulated in full in Additional file 1 : Appendix 6. These reviews presented mixed results pertaining to clinical outcomes including depression, anxiety, eating disorder pathology, and psychosis. However, two scoping reviews reported evidence of peer support in improving suicidal ideation [ 57 , 58 ]. Evidence was deemed inconclusive regarding the impact of peer support on indicators of service use, where three reviews failed to find evidence for peer support [ 21 , 22 , 41 , 42 ], three reported mixed results [ 1 , 38 , 54 ], and one found evidence for improvements associated with peer support [ 36 ]. More consistent evidence was found indicating peer support improves recovery outcomes [ 1 , 36 , 38 , 40 , 44 , 53 ]. For most psychosocial outcomes, systematic reviews presented mixed evidence, for example different effects were found by one high-quality review for empowerment, hope and self-efficacy, depending on what measures were used [ 21 ]. Despite mixed effects being reported overall for the impact of peer support on satisfaction with care, one review cited some possible associated moderating factors such as the number of conversations had between peer supporter and recipient [ 48 ]. Evidence was marginally less mixed for relational outcomes, such as strength of interpersonal relationships and sense of community, as the majority (three) of relevant reviews found evidence in support of peer support [ 21 , 38 , 58 ], although one review found this did not persist long term [ 21 ].

Implementation was investigated in nine reviews [ 23 , 24 , 36 , 39 , 46 , 50 , 55 , 59 , 62 ]. Table 5 shows an overview of implementation outcomes by CFIR domain [ 33 ]. All reviews relevant to this research question were rated as critically low quality based on the adapted AMSTAR 2 rating scale (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 3).

Studies reported generally high acceptability and feasibility of PSW-led interventions [ 36 , 39 , 46 , 50 ]. When planning a peer-led service, co-producing the design of peer support provision with the community and stakeholders was found to be key [ 59 ].

Outer setting

The existence of national policy and funding provisions for employing and retaining PSWs facilitated PSW-led care [ 39 , 46 , 59 ], as did integration of interventions within existing healthcare systems [ 50 ]. However, barriers included power hierarchies [ 39 ], difficulties incorporating PSWs in medical mental health care models [ 24 , 39 , 46 ], interference of work with welfare benefits [ 62 ] and a lack of recognised PSW certification [ 62 ].

Inner setting

A workplace culture emphasising recovery-orientated practice [ 24 , 59 ], and organisational openness and readiness to employ PSWs [ 39 ], was important. Facilitators included strong leadership and support at the highest level [ 46 ], and flexible and understanding employers, especially in times of crisis [ 59 ]. A key facilitator was a supportive, accepting and trusting workplace culture where PSWs occupy a central position and fit in well with other staff members [ 24 ]. A trusting culture allowed the management of risk in a psychologically safe space [ 59 ]; effective communication and collaboration between PSWs and other workers facilitated this [ 24 ], while stigmatising staff attitudes were a barrier [ 62 ]. It was easier to implement PSWs in a more collaborative and less hierarchical service [ 59 ]. There were practical facilitators and barriers for PSWs also, such as access to desk space or administrative data [ 24 , 46 ], time restraints, high caseloads [ 23 , 24 ] and insufficient funding for PSW role [ 24 , 50 ].

Individuals

The professionalisation and legitimisation of the PSW role was seen as important, with associated performance standards and/or a code of ethics [ 24 ] which was linked to rigorous recruitment practices, ensuring parity in the recruitment of PSWs and other staff [ 46 ]. A further facilitator was high levels of competency among peer-counsellors when delivering interventions and having relevant skills and knowledge, e.g. mental health conditions [ 50 ]. PSWs were often required to have recovered from their mental health difficulties [ 55 ] and be able to use their coping skills and resilience to avoid potential negative impacts on their wellbeing [ 24 ]. PSWs reported a conflicted sense of identity between being a ‘peer’ with experience of mental health problems and a ‘professional’ as a barrier to their work [ 62 ]. The use of champions and implementation leaders to drive the set up and maintenance of PSW interventions was reported as a facilitator [ 46 ], as was staff willingness and ability to work with PSWs and accept them as part of the service [ 24 ].

Implementation process

Studies emphasised the importance of comprehensive training for PSWs delivered both prior to starting work and on an ongoing basis, alongside regular clinical supervision [ 24 , 46 , 50 , 55 ] supporting the management of any problems encountered [ 59 ]. PSW roles should be clearly defined [ 24 , 62 ] and training should also be delivered to other members of staff to help them work effectively with PSWs [ 46 ]. Establishing sustainable models of cost and supervision from the outset was key for the longevity of PSW [ 50 ].

Experiences of both the benefits and challenges of peer support were reported in 11 reviews [ 23 , 34 , 39 , 42 , 46 , 49 , 55 , 60 , 61 , 63 , 64 ] from a range of perspectives: PSWs [ 23 , 34 , 39 , 55 , 61 ], service users [ 39 , 55 , 61 ], non-peer staff [ 61 ], peer support group members [ 49 ], and mixed samples which consisted of combinations of PSWs, service users, non-peer staff, carers, mental health organisations, policy makers and peer programme developers [ 23 , 39 , 42 , 46 , 55 , 60 , 61 , 63 , 64 ]. In one review, it was unclear whose perspective was being presented [ 46 ], although this review only contributed to one theme. All reviews providing evidence for this research question were rated as critically low quality based on the adapted AMSTAR 2 rating scale (see Additional file 1 : Appendix 3). We identified 3 overarching themes: (i) what the PSW role can bring, (ii) confusion over the PSW role and (iii) organisational challenges and impact. Table 6 gives an overview of the overarching themes and subthemes (with more detail in Additional file 1 : Appendix 7). The following provides an overview of each overarching theme from the perspective of the different samples (i.e. PSWs, service users, mixed samples).

What the PSW role can bring

Perspective of psws.

PSWs experienced improved wellness and recovery from working in the role, reporting increased self-esteem, personal growth, and social networks [ 23 , 34 , 55 , 61 ]. They benefited in a variety of ways, e.g. the role provided a route back into employment, improving functioning and social inclusion, and allowed them to learn more about their own mental health [ 23 , 34 ]. PSWs also reported increased self-acceptance as they no longer had to hide their mental health issues [ 34 ]. The role was therefore often reported to be mutually beneficial for PSWs and service users [ 34 , 55 ]. PSWs felt it was important that they were role models for service users, being ‘the evidence of recovery’ [ 34 ]. However, working as a PSW could also have a negative impact on the PSWs’ wellbeing and recovery [ 23 , 34 ]. Reasons for this included the role reminding them of their mental health condition and the ‘sick’ label staying with them [ 23 ].

Perspective of service users

For service users, PSWs could be role models, giving them hope of recovery [ 39 , 55 , 61 ]. PSW support normalised and de-medicalised service user experiences [ 55 ]. Lack of judgement from PSWs reduced feelings of self-stigma for service users [ 55 ]. Service users felt empowered by and valued gaining experiential knowledge from PSWs, perceiving them to be more insightful than non-peer staff, and trusting their services [ 39 ]. Service users also built rapport more easily with PSWs than non-peer staff, feeling they were more approachable and had greater empathy than non-peer staff [ 39 , 61 ]. However, some service users reported that PSWs are not role models and found it challenging to view them as professionals or fully trust their knowledge, due to their lack of training and concerns about their mental health history [ 39 , 61 ].

Perspective of non-peer staff

From working with PSWs, non-peer staff developed increased empathy towards service users and a belief in recovery [ 61 ].

Perspective of peer support group members

Forming relationships in peer support groups and having their experiences validated by others was valuable for recovery [ 49 ]. However, group members could feel isolated when other members’ experiences contrasted with their own [ 49 ].

Perspective of mixed samples

PSWs were perceived to be role models, providing valuable support to service users and giving them hope of recovery [ 60 , 64 ]. Working as a PSW could enable service users to find a role in the community, beyond the identity of being a ‘patient’ [ 61 ]. PSWs could build trust-based pathways to function as a bridge between service users and non-peer staff [ 64 ]. Within teams, working with PSWs could improve recovery-oriented care and PSWs carried out various roles, such as providing psychosocial support, advocating for service users, providing insights based on their lived experiences [ 64 ]. For mental health organisations, PSW roles decreased stigma towards mental health problems and set a positive example [ 61 ]. However, there were fears that the PSWs’ mental health condition could impact the provided support, such as increased PSW absenteeism which could increase non-peer staff caseloads and concerns that service users’ and PSWs’ could experience distress due to exposure to difficult (‘triggering’) content [ 42 , 55 , 60 ]. PSWs experienced pressure due to the perception that they were pioneers, leading to expectations, e.g. failure could reduce future PSW opportunities [ 64 ]. There was also concern that PSWs lacked mental health knowledge, beyond their own experience [ 64 ].

Confusion over the PSW role

A lack of clarity about the PSW job description led PSWs to feel the role was undervalued and tokenistic and meant they felt confused in their role. This impacted their perception of competence which affected their recovery and led to uncertainty in their responsibilities with service users [ 23 , 34 ]. PSWs also found the transition from service user to PSW and knowing where to draw the line between friend and service provider to be challenging [ 23 , 61 ]. Linked to this, their dual identity as a service user and provider could be a source of stress. For example, it meant they could closely connect with service users who had similar difficulties to their own, but this could also be triggering and lead to a recurrence of the PSWs’ own mental health issues [ 34 ]. PSWs expressed varying views on disclosing their recovery story [ 34 , 39 ]. For some, sharing elements of their story was linked to their own personal recovery [ 34 ]. However, other PSWs felt fearful of disclosure, e.g. they were concerned about being labelled ‘mentally ill’ and service users not trusting them [ 39 ].

A lack of clarity on the PSW role could lead service users to view the role as informal, leading to negative perceptions of the PSW services. Perceptions of tokenism of peer support could lead to the content of the PSW intervention ‘feeling irrelevant’ [ 39 ].

PSWs and non-peer staff found the PSW role to be ambiguous, e.g. the role was not clearly defined [ 63 ] and job descriptions were ‘vague’ [ 64 ]. Although this gave flexibility to define the role [ 64 ], it also led to challenges. Some PSWs felt they were expected to develop the role over time and received insufficient training, which hampered service delivery and could result in perceptions that PSWs were tokenistic [ 42 , 63 , 64 ]. Uncertainty about the role also led to a lack of support from non-peer staff [ 63 ]. Relatedly, there was confusion for PSWs over when/with whom to disclose their lived experience [ 63 , 64 ]. Some PSWs felt vulnerable and were reluctant to disclose, but disclosure could build trust with service users, enabled PSWs to be recovery role models, and could educate non-peer staff on alternative views [ 63 , 64 ]. Disclosure was also felt to require discretion when fitting with professional relationships. However, ‘professionalisation’ of PSWs may not challenge the existing boundaries (e.g. traditional hospital-based boundaries which could make it difficult for the sharing of lived experience to be valuable), when challenging these boundaries could change culture [ 63 , 64 ]. The transition for PSWs from patient to staff was challenging, e.g. non-peer staff were concerned about the PSW becoming unwell, making PSWs feel like they are being treated like patients [ 63 , 64 ]. There were issues around boundaries, including whether PSWs should relate to service users as friends or service users [ 63 ].

Organisational challenges and impact

PSWs experienced a lack of support and training for their role, potentially related to unclear job descriptions, and insufficient supervision [ 23 , 34 ]. This meant that PSWs struggled to develop the skills for their roles, including to work with service users with more complex needs than their own experiences [ 23 ]. Although there were some contrasting views, PSWs were concerned that they received low pay which made them feel that they were not valued, and they perceived themselves to be ‘cheap labour’ [ 23 , 34 , 61 ]. Some PSWs felt accepted in their teams however others experienced negative and rejecting non-peer staff attitudes [ 23 , 34 , 61 ]. For example, PSWs reported not being invited to social events and being treated like patients [ 61 ]. Consequently, some PSWs felt excluded, that their roles were tokenistic and experienced self-stigma [ 23 , 34 ]. PSWs as part of the newer recovery model reported challenges around integrating into traditional treatment models, e.g. where doctors spent the least time with service users but held the majority of power and decision making for service users. PSWs were expected to contest the traditional treatment model in support of a recovery focus, e.g. by their presence or in some cases being openly challenging, and this clash between old and new treatment models could lead to friction [ 23 ].

There was a fear that ‘cheap labour’ provided by PSWs may lead to fewer non-peer staff positions [ 61 ].

PSWs often received low pay, which led to role dissatisfaction for PSWs, suggesting the job was tokenistic or the role was unclear [ 63 , 64 ]. One reason for low pay was due to PSWs not requiring certification (i.e. specific qualifications, which e.g. a social worker would require) [ 63 ]. Some PSWs were positive about certification but others felt it could conflict with the grassroots ethos of peer support. However, there was the view that lived experience was not solely sufficient to work in interprofessional teams [ 64 ]. Despite this, supervision and support were often not offered to PSWs leading to risks [ 60 , 64 ].

There were challenges in PSW relationships with non-peer staff which could lead to a lack of support and hostility from non-peer staff. Non-peer staff felt threatened that they may be replaced by PSWs [ 64 ], were uneasy about working with people they previously treated [ 46 ], were concerned about the effectiveness of peer support [ 39 ], and felt expectations to support PSWs, increasing their workload [ 42 ]. This undermined the role of PSWs, e.g. they were subsequently given fewer responsibilities [ 39 ]. For PSWs, they wanted to challenge stigma by taking on more responsibility but high, varying workloads could jeopardise relationships with non-peer staff and team hierarchies hindered their ability to challenge clinically dominant ways of thinking [ 64 ].

A final theme was the perception that service users should be able to choose among PSWs as service providers [ 60 ].

Summary of key findings

An overview and summary of the key findings for each research question is presented in Table  7 .

Key findings

Our umbrella review of 35 reviews explored the effectiveness, implementation and experiences of peer support for mental health.

Effectiveness was reported in 23 reviews. Many reviews reporting effectiveness data reported no effect of peer support on a range of outcomes, mirroring the findings from other reviews [ 9 , 66 ] including those focusing on other types of peer support (e.g. online peer support for young people) [ 67 ]. However, there was consistent evidence from meta-analyses that peer support may improve the clinical outcomes of perinatal depression and risk of hospitalisation of adults with severe mental illness, as well as recovery outcomes, and self-efficacy and stigma-related outcomes. Mixed meta-analytic results were found for the clinical outcomes of overall psychiatric symptoms in adults with SMI, psychosis symptoms, length of hospital stay and patient activation, and for psychosocial outcomes such as hope, empowerment, and quality of life. There was no meta-analytic evidence for improvements in relational support. Evidence from systematic reviews without meta-analysis similarly gave a mixed picture regarding psychosocial and clinical outcomes, but indicated more consistent evidence that peer support has a positive impact on recovery, suicidal ideation, and, to some degree, satisfaction with care.

Many possible sources of heterogeneity across the included reviews could contribute to the mixed findings in this study, such as low-quality methodologies, differences in the populations included, and poor specification of peer support roles or the content of interventions delivered. One important potential contributor to our mixed results is that the primary studies contributing to the included reviews often varied in the type of control groups they considered, for example studies with treatment as usual, active controls and waitlist controls were often reviewed within the same paper. As such, it was not possible to determine whether peer support is effective in comparison to certain types of care provision but not others. In a similar vein, we could not perform subgroup analysis to determine whether specific forms of peer support are more effective on certain populations as most reviews with meta-analyses involved a combination of different formats and a range of participant groups. Nevertheless, there was some indication that differences in the format of peer support may impact its effectiveness on empowerment, as the two meta-analyses involving individual peer support alone found a positive effect on empowerment, but the two looking at group-based peer support alone did not. However, further research is needed to adequately address such questions.

Although this overview of quantitative evidence does not give unequivocal support for peer support on a variety of outcomes, the mixed results must be understood not only in the context of heterogeneity of the quantitative research conducted thus far, but with regard to the qualitative evidence documenting strong support for this intervention (as discussed in more detail below). Given that the implementation of peer support in mental health services is still relatively rare and highly variable, many of the trials conducted thus far may have tested peer support in environments where it is not fully embedded in the organisation and culture. Indeed, peer support may have positive impacts on the operation of mental health services that have not been measured as quantitative outcomes in existing trials—such as a stronger culture of person-centred care. More consistent quantitative results demonstrating the benefit of peer support may increasingly emerge as it becomes better integrated in the mental health care system.

We identified several factors reported to be important for the successful implementation of peer support, which were summarised and structured using the CFIR. These factors included adequate training and supervision for PSWs, a recovery-oriented workplace structure, strong leadership and a supportive and trusting workplace culture with effective collaboration between PSWs and non-peer staff. Barriers to peer support being implemented effectively included a lack of time, resources, and appropriate funding, and a lack of recognised PSW certification. Policy, research and campaign groups have advocated implementation approaches in line with these findings, for example, ImROC (implementing Recovery through Organisational Change) [ 14 , 68 ], who support peer support implementation globally and international competence frameworks from New Zealand [ 69 , 70 ], outline recovery focus as a core principle of peer support and emphasise the importance of training and ongoing professional development; peer support practice guidelines in the USA outline the importance of and give guidelines for supervision [ 71 ]. Formalised career pathways for PSWs [ 72 ] may help to address some of the identified barriers to effective implementation of peer support work, although these are still early in their development [ 68 ].

Experiences of peer support were from a range of perspectives (e.g. PSWs, service users, non-peer staff) and were organised under three main themes. The benefits of peer support for PSWs, service users and non-peer staff were expressed in many reviews; however, there were also conflicting and challenging experiences of the role. The mental health experience of PSWs was viewed as valuable, but also subject to some stigmatising views. For PSWs, the role could improve their personal wellness and recovery, providing a route back into employment and improving functioning, and provide service users with role models of recovery. The reciprocal benefits of peer support have also been highlighted as an advantage of peer support in resources developed by NHS England [ 19 ]. However, PSWs reported the ‘sick’ label stayed with them in the role, with non-peer staff at times concerned that PSWs mental health would impact their work, and some service users reported that they found it challenging to trust PSWs knowledge due to their lack of training and mental health history. A key experience, which became the core of our second theme, was the ambiguity of the PSW job description, including lack of clarity over boundaries with service users and when to disclose PSWs’ personal experiences. This ambiguity meant that the role was flexible, but also led to the perception that it was tokenistic and left PSWs feeling confused which impacted their own recovery. IMROC recommend the prioritisation of clear roles when implementing peer support [ 68 ]. Professional accreditation can counter the view of peer support as tokenistic, e.g. the UK Peer Support Competence Framework outlined by the Royal College of Psychiatrists [ 73 ] and the Canadian Peer support Accreditation and Certification, a national standard endorsing peer support work as a valuable career, developed in 2017 by PSWs themselves [ 74 ]. The final theme ‘organisational challenges and impact’ included experiences such as PSWs receiving inadequate support, training and supervision, and receiving low pay, leaving them feeling undervalued. Some non-peer staff attitudes were also a reported issue; while some PSWs felt accepted within teams, others experienced negative and rejecting non-peer staff attitudes, such as being treated as patients and not being invited to staff social events. Organisations should prepare, structurally and culturally, for the introduction of PSWs in order to ensure PSW wellbeing and reduce the risk of absences due to sickness [ 68 , 75 ].

Strengths and limitations

We conducted a comprehensive search of several relevant databases and identified a large number of reviews for inclusion, providing the first detailed summary of review findings relating to effectiveness, implementation and experiences of peer support. We also had consistent involvement of researchers with lived experience of mental health and peer support delivery and receipt throughout the design, data screening and extraction, analysis and synthesis, and manuscript drafting for this paper, which allowed lived experience priorities and experiences to guide our approaches to data and our decision making throughout.

We aimed to focus our review on paid peer support; however, this information was underreported in the reviews, and even when reported, interventions were often grouped with peer support interventions that did not fully meet our eligibility criteria (e.g. were unpaid). We also synthesised data from studies where payment status of PSWs was ambiguous, i.e. not reported. This limits our ability to draw firm conclusions around paid peer support specifically, as a significant portion of the data synthesised was from studies investigating unpaid or voluntary peer support. Another limitation was the lack of involvement of people with lived experience in the included reviews, with involvement reported in only one review [ 57 ]. Given the service user-led origins of peer support, future reviews should ensure involvement of people with lived experience. This is addressed in more detail later in this paper. Most included reviews were appraised by the AMSTAR 2 as low or critically low (97%) quality with only one review appraised as high quality. Although the low quality of reviews is a limitation, we aimed to report an overview of all current evidence for peer support to inform policy makers and healthcare practitioners, therefore to maximise the evidence base, we synthesised the reviews scored as ‘critically low quality’. Our ratings are also in line with a prior umbrella review of peer support which rated 87% of reviews as critically low quality and the remainder as low quality, but reported outcomes from all reviews [ 66 ].

Beyond the aforementioned limitations regarding variation in studies within each review, there is also a loss of granular detail through the umbrella review process of summarising data across reviews, which themselves contain many studies which have been summarised. The person-centred nature of peer support may mean that there are meaningful outcomes for the service user which are not easily captured in standard outcome measurement tools or recognised as clinically significant. Variation in peer support roles across studies may have contributed to the contradictions in our findings for RQ3, e.g. the challenges around PSW roles being ambiguous, but also the reported benefits of a flexible role.

A strength of our review was our broad inclusion criteria, for example, for qualitative data on experiences of peer support we reported data from the perspectives of service users, non-peer staff and PSWs. Though some data was reported separately by role, there were studies where experiences were reported together, and these perspectives were difficult to disentangle. Finally, we did not conduct a formal meta-synthesis of the qualitative experiences data; therefore, some detail may have been missed.

Implications for practice

Peer support may be effective at improving some clinical outcomes, self-efficacy and recovery outcomes for some people and could augment the standard service range. Certain groups may benefit from peer support more than others; evidence was strongest for depression outcomes within perinatal populations, but extremely variable for other populations. Peer support may differ in effectiveness depending on population needs and characteristics. PSWs need adequate pay, clear role descriptions and guidelines (e.g. about boundaries and disclosure), ongoing training and supervision, and opportunities for progression. Attitudes about peer support held by non-peer staff may significantly support or impede the implementation and experience of PSWs, and non-peer staff may require training about PSW roles and how to work collaboratively with PSWs. Culture, hierarchical structure and staff acceptability of peer support impact implementation and experience of peer support—structural and cultural change may be required for peer support to succeed, e.g. ensuring a recovery-oriented care model is operating in the service.

Implications for policy

Successful implementation of PSWs in healthcare settings is likely to require a coproduction approach with clearly defined PSW roles, a receptive hierarchical structure and staff, strong leadership and appropriate training (for PSWs and staff) with clinical and/or peer supervision alongside safeguarding. Issues relating to cost, lack of time and lack of resources are key considerations for service providers aiming to implement PSW that is sustained and effective within services. Additionally, Services could benefit from clear, coproduced guidelines, outlining the steps that are most likely to lead to successful PSW implementation.

Implications for research

Future primary and secondary research could usefully explore the differences in efficacy, implementation and experiences in paid PSW over time as it becomes more established; an important distinction as there are likely to be differences in these outcomes as the role of PSW develops. Such studies could consider using more personalised outcome measures such as goal-based outcome measurement [ 76 ]. Current PSW roles are still poorly defined and PSW content, including PSW variations (such as whether PSWs should deliver structured or more loosely structured, informal interventions, or whether interventions should vary according to need and context), need further exploration. Realist investigations around what works for whom, how and in which contexts would uncover more fine-grained detail on the specific contexts and mechanisms that explain these differences. Very few reviews included in this umbrella review reported lived experience researcher leadership or involvement in the undertaking of the study. It is imperative for future research in this area to appropriately reflect the priorities of those who are directly involved in PSW, either as providers or as service users. As the number of PSWs increases and more formalised roles are created, positive impact may not be restricted to outcomes of those supported by PSWs, but also to the functioning of services at an organisational level [ 68 ]. Further research is needed to evaluate how teams function with and without PSWs in order to understand how they may impact experiences through changes at a system level [ 68 ].

Our umbrella review has summarised data from 35 reviews on the effectiveness, implementation, and experiences of peer support for mental health. Although we attempted to focus solely on paid peer support, this detail was often not reported in the reviews. While data on effectiveness was mixed, there was some evidence of improvements on outcomes including depression, particularly perinatal depression, self-efficacy, and recovery, illustrating the potential benefits of wider PSW implementation across mental health services. Good implementation of peer support depends on co-design with people with lived experience, clear job descriptions, a recovery-oriented workplace culture, strong leadership, appropriate training for PSWs and staff , and supervision for PSWs. However due to limited information on cost or cost-effectiveness, we are unable to draw conclusions around resources required to implement PSWs. Experiences of peer support were from a range of perspectives. Peer support was mutually beneficial for PSWs’ and service users’ wellbeing and recovery and PSWs became role models. However, at times PSW roles were ambiguous, this meant that the role was flexible but could also lead to confusion which could impact PSWs own recovery. Potential strategies to successfully implement peer support include that the PSW roles should be clear, PSWs should be appropriately trained and paid, as well as supported and supervised within a trusting and accepting workplace structure and culture that advocates for a recovery-oriented model of care.

Lived experience commentary, written by LM and KM

This study provides a useful summary of the available research on peer support. By providing an overarching review of 35 reviews including 426 available studies, the paper brings together the knowledge on a topic of growing importance and understanding of the experiences, effectiveness, and implementation of peer support. However, this evidence is limited to ‘paid peer support workers’ included in data from academic literature of systematic reviews.

The nature of an umbrella review means that the systematic reviews themselves are synthesised, limiting our ability to look at specific details in the primary studies, for example to look for evidence of lived experience involvement or co-authorship or demographics of participants. The papers within the review are likely to have originated from traditionally funded research enquiries, and an umbrella review potentially magnifies academic or clinical perspectives over user voices and interests. While this is a frustration in any mental-health-related topic, this is particularly concerning in relation to peer support, with its origins in our user-led history.

The roots in user-led peer support are also overlooked when limiting the studies to paid peer support work. Although they might use the same language of mutuality and reciprocity, the two feel different. We are hesitant to suggest that we would prefer the skills and expertise of our supporters to be voluntary and unpaid; we strongly believe their expertise should be valued and funded. But there is something magical about informal peer support which can be lost when it is over-policed in bureaucratic cultures. Additionally, with studies included in the review dating back to 1979, we question how relevant these studies are in informing England’s evolving peer support landscape.

A crucial area of future research is exploring what type of peer support works best for whom and in what circumstances, and how we can deliver this. Furthermore, we need to better understand how NHS cultures can be supported to value the expertise that originates in our lived experience, including the marginalised experiences which have been disproportionately represented in mental health services.

Availability of data and materials

The data used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Abbreviations

A MeaSurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews

Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research

Implementing Recovery through Organisational Change

Lived Experience Working Group

Population, Intervention, Comparator group, Outcome

Peer support worker

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Acknowledgements

This work is supported by the NIHR UCLH BRC.

This study is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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Ruth E. Cooper and Katherine R. K. Saunders are joint first-authors.

Authors and Affiliations

NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, London, UK

Ruth E. Cooper, Katherine R. K. Saunders, Jessica Griffiths, Ruth Stuart & Alan Simpson

NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit, Division of Psychiatry, University College London, London, UK

Anna Greenburgh, Rebecca Appleton, Phoebe Barnett, Sophie M. Allan, Brynmor Lloyd-Evans & Sonia Johnson

Centre for Outcomes Research and Effectiveness, Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, University College London, London, UK

Phoebe Barnett

National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists, London, UK

University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

Sophie M. Allan

MHPRU Lived Experience Working Group, London, UK

Prisha Shah, Karen Machin, Tamar Jeynes, Lizzie Mitchell, Beverley Chipp & Stephen Jeffreys

Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery and Palliative Care, London, UK

Alan Simpson

Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK

Sonia Johnson

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All authors (RC, KS, AG, PS, RA, KM, TJ, PB, SA, JG, RS, LM, BC, SJ, BLE, AS, SJ) substantially contributed to the conception or design of this study. Data acquisition was undertaken by: KS, RC, JG, RS, RA, KM, PS, SA, PB. The data were synthesised and interpreted by: KS, AG, RA, PS, KM, TJ, and RC. KS and RC led on drafting the manuscript with input and/or editing by all other authors (AG, PS, RA, KM, TJ, PB, SA, JG, RS, LM, BC, SJ, BLE, AS, SJ). All authors (RC, KS, AG, PS, RA, KM, TJ, PB, SA, JG, RS, LM, BC, SJ, BLE, AS, SJ) read and approved the final manuscript.

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Twitter handles: @soniajohnson (Sonia Johnson); @cityalan (Alan Simpson); @MentalHealthPRU (Mental Health Policy Research Unit).

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Correspondence to Ruth E. Cooper or Katherine R. K. Saunders .

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KM is a Director of With-you Consultancy Ltd who provide peer support training and consultancy. All other authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information

Additional file 1: appendix 1..

Prisma checklist [ 29 ]. Appendix 2. Full search strategy. Appendix 3. AMSTAR2 ratings. Appendix 4. Excluded studies following full text screening, with reasons. Appendix 5. Study overlap. Appendix 6. Effectiveness of peer support outcomes: results for non-meta-analysis results. Appendix 7. Experiences of peer support (detailed themes).

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Cooper, R.E., Saunders, K.R.K., Greenburgh, A. et al. The effectiveness, implementation, and experiences of peer support approaches for mental health: a systematic umbrella review. BMC Med 22 , 72 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-024-03260-y

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How to Conduct a Systematic Review: A Narrative Literature Review

Nusrat jahan.

1 Psychiatry, Mount Sinai Chicago

Sadiq Naveed

2 Psychiatry, KVC Prairie Ridge Hospital

Muhammad Zeshan

3 Department of Psychiatry, Bronx Lebanon Hospital Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Bronx, NY

Muhammad A Tahir

4 Psychiatry, Suny Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY

Systematic reviews are ranked very high in research and are considered the most valid form of medical evidence. They provide a complete summary of the current literature relevant to a research question and can be of immense use to medical professionals. Our goal with this paper is to conduct a narrative review of the literature about systematic reviews and outline the essential elements of a systematic review along with the limitations of such a review.

Introduction and background

A literature review provides an important insight into a particular scholarly topic. It compiles published research on a topic, surveys different sources of research, and critically examines these sources [ 1 ]. A literature review may be argumentative, integrative, historical, methodological, systematic, or theoretical, and these approaches may be adopted depending upon the types of analysis in a particular study [ 2 ].

Our topic of interest in this article is to understand the different steps of conducting a systematic review. Systematic reviews, according to Wright, et al., are defined as a “review of the evidence on a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select and critically appraise relevant primary research, and to extract and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review” [ 3 ]. A systematic review provides an unbiased assessment of these studies [ 4 ]. Such reviews emerged in the 1970s in the field of social sciences. Systematic reviews, as well as the meta-analyses of the appropriate studies, can be the best form of evidence available to clinicians [ 3 ]. The unsystematic narrative review is more likely to include only research selected by the authors, which introduces bias and, therefore, frequently lags behind and contradicts the available evidence [ 5 ].

Epidemiologist Archie Cochrane played a vital role in formulating the methodology of the systematic review [ 6 ]. Dr. Cochrane loved to study patterns of disease and how these related to the environment. In the early 1970s, he found that many decisions in health care were made without reliable, up-to-date evidence about the treatments used [ 6 ].

A systematic review may or may not include meta-analysis, depending on whether results from different studies can be combined to provide a meaningful conclusion. David Sackett defined meta-analysis as a “specific statistical strategy for assembling the results of several studies into a single estimate” [ 7 - 8 ].

While the systematic review has several advantages, it has several limitations which can affect the conclusion. Inadequate literature searches and heterogeneous studies can lead to false conclusions. Similarly, the quality of assessment is an important step in systematic reviews, and it can lead to adverse consequences if not done properly.

The purpose of this article is to understand the important steps involved in conducting a systematic review of all kinds of clinical studies. We conducted a narrative review of the literature about systematic reviews with a special focus on articles that discuss conducting reviews of randomized controlled trials. We discuss key guidelines and important terminologies and present the advantages and limitations of systematic reviews.

Narrative reviews are a discussion of important topics on a theoretical point of view, and they are considered an important educational tool in continuing medical education [ 9 ]. Narrative reviews take a less formal approach than systematic reviews in that narrative reviews do not require the presentation of the more rigorous aspects characteristic of a systematic review such as reporting methodology, search terms, databases used, and inclusion and exclusion criteria [ 9 ]. With this in mind, our narrative review will give a detailed explanation of the important steps of a systematic review.

Preferred reporting items for systematic review and meta-analysis protocols (PRISMA-P) checklist

Systematic reviews are conducted based on predefined criteria and protocol. The PRISMA-P checklist, developed by Moher, et al., contains 17 items (26 including sub-items) comprising the important steps of a systematic review, including information about authors, co-authors, their mailing and email addresses, affiliations, and any new or updated version of a previous systematic review [ 9 ]. It also identifies a plan for documenting important protocol amendments, registry names, registration numbers, financial disclosures, and other support services [ 10 ]. Moher, et al. also state that methods of systematic reviews involve developing eligibility criteria and describing information sources, search strategies, study selection processes, outcomes, assessment of bias in individual studies, and data synthesis [ 10 ].

Research question

Writing a research question is the first step in conducting a systematic review and is of paramount importance as it outlines both the need and validity of systematic reviews (Nguyen, et al., unpublished data). It also increases the efficiency of the review by limiting the time and cost of identifying and obtaining relevant literature [ 11 ]. The research question should summarize the main objective of a systematic review.

An example research question might read, “How does attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affect the academic performance of middle school children in North America?” The question focuses on the type of data, analysis, and topic to be discussed (i.e., ADHD among North American middle school students). Try to avoid research questions that are too narrow or broad—they can lead to the selection of only a few studies and the ability to generalize results to any other populations may be limited. An example of a research question that is too narrow would be, “What is the prevalence of ADHD in children and adolescents in Chicago, IL?” Alternately, if the research question is too broad, it can be difficult to reach a conclusion due to poor methodology. An example of a research question that is too broad in scope would be, “What are the effects of ADHD on the functioning of children and adolescents in North America?”

Different tools that can be used to help devise a research question, depending on the type of question, are: population, intervention, comparator, and outcomes (PICO); sample, phenomenon of interest, design, evaluation, and research type (SPIDER); setting, perspective, intervention, comparison, and evaluation (SPICE); and expectation, client group, location, impact, professionals, and service (ECLIPSE).

The PICO approach is mostly used to compare different interventions with each other. It helps to formulate a research question related to prognosis, diagnosis, and therapies [ 12 ].

Scenario: A 50-year-old white woman visited her psychiatrist with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. She was prescribed fluoxetine, which she feels has been helpful. However, she experienced some unpleasant side effects of nausea and abdominal discomfort. She has recently been told by a friend about the use of St. John’s wort in treating depression and would like to try this in treating her current depression. (Formulating research questions, unpublished data).

In the above-mentioned scenario, the sample population is a 50-year-old female with major depressive disorder; the intervention is St. John’s wort; the comparison is fluoxetine; and the outcome would be efficacy and safety. In order to see the outcome of both efficacy and safety, we will compare the efficacy and safety of both St. John’s wort and fluoxetine in a sample population for treating depression. This scenario represents an example where we can apply the PICO approach to compare two interventions.

In contrast, the SPIDER approach is focused more on study design and samples rather than populations [ 13 ]. The SPIDER approach can be used in this research question: “What is the experience of psychiatry residents attending a transgender education?” The sample is psychiatry residents; the phenomenon of interest is transgender education; the design is a survey; the evaluation looks at the experience; and the research type is qualitative. 

The SPICE approach can be used to evaluate the outcome of a service, intervention, or project [ 14 ]. The SPICE approach applies to the following research question: “In psychiatry clinics, does the combined use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and psychotherapy reduce depression in an outpatient clinic versus SSRI therapy alone?” The setting is the psychiatry clinic; the perspective/population is the outpatient; the intervention is combined psychotherapy and SSRI; the comparison is SSRI alone; and the evaluation is reduced depression. 

The ECLIPSE approach is useful for evaluating the outcome of a policy or service (Nguyen, et al., unpublished data). ECLIPSE can apply in the following research question: “How can a resident get access to medical records of patients admitted to inpatient from other hospitals?” The expectation is: “What are you looking to improve/change to increase access to medical records for patients admitted to inpatient?” The client group is the residents; the location is the inpatient setting; the impact would be the residents having easy access to medical records from other hospitals; and the professionals in this scenario would be those involved in improving the service experiences such as hospital administrators and IT staff.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Establishing inclusion and exclusion criteria come after formulating research questions. The concept of inclusion and exclusion of data in a systematic review provides a basis on which the reviewer draws valid and reliable conclusions regarding the effect of the intervention for the disorder under consideration [ 11 ]. Inclusions and exclusion are based on preset criteria for specific systematic review. It should be done before starting the literature search in order to minimize the possibility of bias.

Eligibility criteria provide the boundaries of the systematic review [ 15 ]. Participants, interventions, and comparison of a research question provide the basis for eligibility criteria [ 15 ]. The inclusion criteria should be able to identify the studies of interest and, if the inclusion criteria are too broad or too narrow, it can lead to an ineffective screening process.

Protocol registration

Developing and registering research protocol is another important step of conducting a systematic review. The research protocol ensures that a systematic review is carefully planned and explicitly documented before the review starts, thus promoting consistency in conduct for the review team and supporting the accountability, research integrity, and transparency of the eventually completed review [ 10 ]. PROSPERO and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews are utilized for registering research protocols and research questions, and they check for prior existing duplicate protocols or research questions. PROSPERO is an international database of prospectively registered systematic reviews related to health care and social sciences (PRISMA, 2016). It is funded by the National Institute for Health Research. The Cochrane Collaboration concentrates on producing systematic reviews of interventions and diagnostic test accuracy but does not currently produce reviews on questions of prognosis or etiology [ 16 ].

A detailed and extensive search strategy is important for the systematic review since it minimizes bias in the review process [ 17 ].

Selecting and searching appropriate electronic databases is determined by the topic of interest. Important databases are: MEDLARS Online (MEDLINE), which is the online counterpart to the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System (MEDLARS); Excerpta Medica Database (EMBASE); and Google Scholar. There are multiple electronic databases available based on the area of interest. Other important databases include: PsycINFO for psychology and psychiatry; Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED) for complementary medicine; Manual, Alternative, and Natural Therapy Index System (MANTIS) for alternative medical literature; and Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) for nursing and allied health [ 15 ].

Additional studies relevant for the review may be found by looking at the references of studies identified by different databases [ 15 ]. Non-indexed articles may be found by searching the content of journals, conferences proceedings, and abstracts. It will also help with letters and commentaries which may not get indexed [ 15 ]. Reviewing clinical trial registries can provide information about any ongoing trials or unpublished research [ 15 ]. A gray literature search can access unpublished papers, reports, and conference reports, and it generally covers studies that are published in an informal fashion, rather than in an indexed journal [ 15 ]. Further search can be performed by selecting important key articles and going through in-text citations [ 15 ].

Using Boolean operators, truncation, and wildcards

Boolean operators use the relationship between different search words to help with the search strategy. These are simple words (i.e., AND, OR, and NOT) which can help with more focused and productive results (poster, Jahan, et al.: How to conduct a systematic review. APPNA 39th Summer Convention. Washington, DC. 2016). The Boolean operator AND finds articles with all the search words. The use of OR broadens the focus of the search, and it will include articles with at least one search term. The researchers can also ignore certain results from the records by using NOT in the search strategy.

An example of AND would be using “depression” AND “children” in the search strategy with the goal of studying depression in children. This search strategy will include all the articles about both depression and children. The researchers may use OR if the emphasis of the study is mood disorders or affective disorders in adolescents. In that case, the search strategy will be “mood disorders” OR “affective disorders” AND “adolescents.” This search will find all the articles about mood disorders or affective disorders in adolescents. The researchers can use NOT if they only want to study depression in children and want to ignore bipolar disorder from the search. An example search in this scenario would be “depression” NOT “bipolar disorder” AND “children.” This will help ignore studies related to bipolar disorder in children.

Truncation and wildcards are other tools to make search strategy more comprehensive and focused. While the researchers search a database for certain articles, they frequently face terminologies that have the same initial root of a word but different endings. An example would be "autism," "autistic," and "autism spectrum disorder." These words have a similar initial root derived from “autis” but they end differently in each case. The truncation symbol (*) retrieves articles that contain words beginning with “autis” plus any additional characters. Wildcards are used for words with the same meanings but different spellings due to various reasons. For the words with spelling variations of a single letter, wildcard symbols can be used. When the researcher inputs “M+N” in the search bar, this returns results containing both “man” or “men” as the wildcard accounts for the spelling variations between the letters M and N.

Study selection

Study selection should be performed in a systematic manner, so reviewers deal with fewer errors and a lower risk of bias (online course, Li T, Dickersin K: Introduction to systematic review and meta-analysis. 2016. https://www.coursera.org/learn/systematic-review #). Study selection should involve two independent reviewers who select studies using inclusion and exclusion criteria. Any disagreements during this process should be resolved by discussion or by a third reviewer [ 10 ]. Specific study types can be selected depending on the research question. For example, questions on incidence and prevalence can be answered by surveys and cohort studies. Clinical trials can provide answers to questions related to therapy and screening. Queries regarding diagnostic accuracy can be answered by clinical trials and cross-sectional studies (online course, Li T, Dickersin K: Introduction to systematic review and meta-analysis. 2016. https://www.coursera.org/learn/systematic-review #). Prognosis and harm-related questions should use cohort studies and clinical trials, and etiology questions should use case-control and cohort studies (online course, Li T, Dickersin K: Introduction to systematic review and meta-analysis. 2016. https://www.coursera.org/learn/systematic-review #).

Data screening and data extractions are two of the major steps in conducting a systematic review [ 18 ]. Data screening involves searching for relevant articles in different databases using keywords. The next step of data screening is manuscript selection by reviewing each manuscript in the search results to compare that manuscript against the inclusion criteria [ 18 ]. The researchers should also review the references of the papers selected before selecting the final paper, which is the last step of data screening [ 18 ].

The next stage is extracting and appraising the data of the included articles [ 18 ]. A data extraction form should be used to help reduce the number of errors, and more than one person should record the data [ 17 ]. Data should be collected on specific points like population type, study authors, agency, study design, humanitarian crisis, target age groups, research strengths from the literature, setting, study country, type(s) of public health intervention, and health outcome(s) addressed by the public health intervention. All this information should then be put into an electronic database [ 18 ].

Assessing bias

Bias is a systematic error (or deviation from the truth) in results or inferences. Biases can change the results of any study and lead to an underestimation or overestimation of the true intervention effect [ 19 ]. Biases can impact any aspect of a review, including selecting studies, collecting and extracting data, and making a conclusion. Biases can vary in magnitude; some are small, with negligible effect, but some are substantial to a degree where an apparent finding may be entirely due to bias [ 19 ]. There are different types of bias, including, but not limited to, selection, detection, attrition, reporting, and performance.

Selection bias occurs when a sample selected is not representative of the whole general population. If randomization of the sample is done correctly, then chances of selection bias can be minimized [ 20 ].

Detection bias refers to systematic differences between groups in how outcomes are determined. This type of bias is based on knowledge of the intervention provided and its outcome [ 19 ].

Attrition bias refers to systematic differences between groups in withdrawals from a study [ 19 ]. The data will be considered incomplete if some subjects are withdrawn or have irregular visits during data collection.

Reporting bias refers to systematic differences between reported and unreported findings, and it is commonly seen during article reviews. Reporting bias is based on reviewer judgment about the outcome of selected articles [ 20 ].

Performance bias develops due to the knowledge of the allocated interventions by participants and personnel during the study [ 20 ]. Using a double-blind study design helps prevent performance bias, where neither the experimenter nor the subjects know which group contains controls and which group contains the test article [ 14 ].

Last step of systematic review: discussion

The discussion of a systematic review is where a summary of the available evidence for different outcomes is written and discussed [ 10 ]. The limitations of a systematic review are also discussed in detail. Finally, a conclusion is drawn after evaluating the results and considering limitations [ 10 ].

Discussion of the current article

Systematic reviews with or without a meta-analysis are currently ranked to be the best available evidence in the hierarchy of evidence-based practice [ 21 ]. We have discussed the methodology of a systematic review. A systematic review is classified in the category of filtered information because it appraises the quality of the study and its application in the field of medicine [ 21 ]. However, there are some limitations of the systematic review, as we mentioned earlier in our article. A large randomized controlled trial may provide a better conclusion than a systematic review of many smaller trials due to their larger sample sizes [ 22 ], which help the researchers generalize their conclusions for a bigger population. Other important factors to consider include higher dropout rates in large studies, co-interventions, and heterogeneity among studies included in the review.

As we discussed the limitations of the systematic review and its effect on quality of evidence, there are several tools to rate the evidence, such as the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) system [ 22 ]. GRADE provides a structured approach to evaluating the risk of bias, serious inconsistency between studies, indirectness, imprecision of the results, and publication bias [ 22 ]. Another approach used to rate the quality of evidence is a measurement tool to assess systematic reviews (AMSTAR) [ 23 ]. It is also available in several languages [ 23 ].

Conclusions

Despite its limitations, a systematic review can add to the knowledge of the scientific community especially when there are gaps in the existing knowledge. However, conducting a systematic review requires different steps that involve different tools and strategies. It can be difficult at times to access and utilize these resources. A researcher can understand and strategize a systematic review following the different steps outlined in this literature review. However, conducting a systematic review requires a thorough understanding of all the concepts and tools involved, which is an extensive endeavor to be summed up in one article.

The Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions and the Center for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD) provide excellent guidance through their insightful and detailed guidelines. We recommend consulting these resources for further guidance.

Given that our article is a narrative review of the scholarly literature, it contains the same limitations as noted for any narrative review. We hope that our review of the means and methods for conducting a systematic review will be helpful in providing basic knowledge to utilize the resources available to the scientific community.

The content published in Cureus is the result of clinical experience and/or research by independent individuals or organizations. Cureus is not responsible for the scientific accuracy or reliability of data or conclusions published herein. All content published within Cureus is intended only for educational, research and reference purposes. Additionally, articles published within Cureus should not be deemed a suitable substitute for the advice of a qualified health care professional. Do not disregard or avoid professional medical advice due to content published within Cureus.

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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    A systematic literature review is a research methodology designed to answer a focused research question. Authors conduct a methodical and comprehensive literature synthesis focused on a well-formulated research question. Its aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic, including both published and ...

  13. Literature and systematic reviews

    Systematic reviews. Systematic review is a type of literature review. Unlike other forms of review, where authors can include any articles they consider appropriate, a systematic review aims to remove the reviewer's biases by following a clearly defined, transparent process. There are a number of steps in the process, and each needs to be ...

  14. How to Do a Systematic Review: A Best Practice Guide for Conducting and

    Systematic reviews are characterized by a methodical and replicable methodology and presentation. They involve a comprehensive search to locate all relevant published and unpublished work on a subject; a systematic integration of search results; and a critique of the extent, nature, and quality of evidence in relation to a particular research question. The best reviews synthesize studies to ...

  15. Guidelines for writing a systematic review

    A preliminary review, which can often result in a full systematic review, to understand the available research literature, is usually time or scope limited. Complies evidence from multiple reviews and does not search for primary studies. 3. Identifying a topic and developing inclusion/exclusion criteria.

  16. How to Do a Systematic Review: A Best Practice Guide for Conducting and

    Systematic reviews are characterized by a methodical and replicable methodology and presentation. They involve a comprehensive search to locate all relevant published and unpublished work on a subject; a systematic integration of search results; and a critique of the extent, nature, and quality of evidence in relation to a particular research question.

  17. Five steps to conducting a systematic review

    A review earns the adjective systematic if it is based on a clearly formulated question, identifies relevant studies, appraises their quality and summarizes the evidence by use of explicit methodology. It is the explicit and systematic approach that distinguishes systematic reviews from traditional reviews and commentaries.

  18. Systematic reviews: Structure, form and content

    Introduction. A systematic review collects secondary data, and is a synthesis of all available, relevant evidence which brings together all existing primary studies for review (Cochrane 2016).A systematic review differs from other types of literature review in several major ways.

  19. Literature Review vs Systematic Review

    Regardless of this commonality, both types of review vary significantly. The following table provides a detailed explanation as well as the differences between systematic and literature reviews. Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review.

  20. Introduction to systematic review and meta-analysis

    A systematic review collects all possible studies related to a given topic and design, and reviews and analyzes their results [ 1 ]. During the systematic review process, the quality of studies is evaluated, and a statistical meta-analysis of the study results is conducted on the basis of their quality. A meta-analysis is a valid, objective ...

  21. How to Write a Systematic Review of the Literature

    This article provides a step-by-step approach to conducting and reporting systematic literature reviews (SLRs) in the domain of healthcare design and discusses some of the key quality issues associated with SLRs. SLR, as the name implies, is a systematic way of collecting, critically evaluating, integrating, and presenting findings from across ...

  22. How to carry out a literature search for a systematic review: a

    A literature search is distinguished from, but integral to, a literature review. Literature reviews are conducted for the purpose of (a) locating information on a topic or identifying gaps in the literature for areas of future study, (b) synthesising conclusions in an area of ambiguity and (c) helping clinicians and researchers inform decision-making and practice guidelines.

  23. 'It depends': what 86 systematic reviews tell us about what strategies

    This review updates and extends our previous review of systematic reviews of interventions designed to implement research evidence into clinical practice. To identify potentially relevant peer-reviewed research papers, we developed a comprehensive systematic literature search strategy based on the terms used in the Grimshaw et al. [ 9 ] and ...

  24. Administrative Sciences

    The systematic literature review formed the basis for in-depth interviews with experts in the discipline to explore the meaning and scope of digital transformation in higher education institutions. Then, for the purpose of preparing the case study, the concepts that emerged from the systematic literature review and interviews with experts were ...

  25. Literature Review

    Systematic literature reviews (SLRs) play a crucial role in assessing therapeutic interventions, but historically have demanded significant investments of time and resources to conduct each review. Most traditional workflows involve coordinating multiple systems in a predominantly manual process.

  26. Complexity in Construction Projects: A Literature Review

    Improper understanding of complexity can be a leading factor in the failure of construction projects. This study aims to provide a better understanding of the complexity of construction projects. For this purpose, this study uses the systematic literature review (SLR) approach to review the related literature and propose a definition for complexity and the criteria that affect the degree of ...

  27. The effectiveness, implementation, and experiences of peer support

    Peer support for mental health is recommended across international policy guidance and provision. Our systematic umbrella review summarises evidence on the effectiveness, implementation, and experiences of paid peer support approaches for mental health. We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, The Campbell Collaboration, and The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2012-2022) for reviews ...

  28. Climate

    This systematic review identified the prevalence, effectiveness, and potential benefits of agroecology strategies in promoting sustainable agriculture practices implemented by smallholder crop farmers in South Africa. The review carried out a comprehensive literature search across various academic databases, including PubMed, Scopus, and Web of science. The relevant studies were screened and ...

  29. How to Conduct a Systematic Review: A Narrative Literature Review

    Writing a research question is the first step in conducting a systematic review and is of paramount importance as it outlines both the need and validity of systematic reviews (Nguyen, et al., unpublished data). It also increases the efficiency of the review by limiting the time and cost of identifying and obtaining relevant literature [ 11 ].

  30. A systematic review of interventions to improve medication adherence in

    Background: Medication non-adherence is a significant contributor to healthcare inefficiency, resulting in poor medication management, impaired patient outcomes and ineffective symptom control. This review summarises interventions targeting medication adherence for adults with mental-physical multimorbidity, in primary healthcare settings. Methods: A systematic review of literature was ...