There is a notable lack of methodological and reporting guidance for systematic reviews of prevalence data. This information void has the potential to result in reviews that are inconsistent and inadequate to inform healthcare policy and decision making. The aim of this meta-epidemiological study is to describe the methodology of recently published prevalence systematic reviews.
We searched MEDLINE (via PubMed) from February 2017 to February 2018 for systematic reviews of prevalence studies. We included systematic reviews assessing the prevalence of any clinical condition using patients as the unit of measurement and we summarized data related to reporting and methodology of the reviews.
A total of 235 systematic reviews of prevalence were analyzed. The median number of authors was 5 (interquartile range [IQR] 4–7), the median number of databases searched was 4 (3–6) and the median number of studies included in each review was 24 (IQR 15–41.5). Search strategies were presented for 68% of reviews. Forty five percent of reviews received external funding, and 24% did not provide funding information. Twenty three percent of included reviews had published or registered the systematic review protocol. Reporting guidelines were used in 72% of reviews. The quality of included studies was assessed in 80% of reviews. Nine reviews assessed the overall quality of evidence (4 using GRADE). Meta-analysis was conducted in 65% of reviews; 1% used Bayesian methods. Random effect meta-analysis was used in 94% of reviews; among them, 75% did not report the variance estimator used. Among the reviews with meta-analysis, 70% did not report how data was transformed; 59% percent conducted subgroup analysis, 38% conducted meta-regression and 2% estimated prediction interval; I2 was estimated in 95% of analysis. Publication bias was examined in 48%. The most common software used was STATA (55%).
Our results indicate that there are significant inconsistencies regarding how these reviews are conducted. Many of these differences arose in the assessment of methodological quality and the formal synthesis of comparable data. This variability indicates the need for clearer reporting standards and consensus on methodological guidance for systematic reviews of prevalence data.