Objectives: To examine the quality of reporting of harms in systematic reviews, and to determine the need for a reporting guideline specific for reviews of harms.
Design: Systematic review.
Data sources: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) and Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE).
Review methods: Databases were searched for systematic reviews having an adverse event as the main outcome, published from January 2008 to April 2011. Adverse events included an adverse reaction, harms, or complications associated with any healthcare intervention. Articles with a primary aim to investigate the complete safety profile of an intervention were also included. We developed a list of 37 items to measure the quality of reporting on harms in each review; data were collected as dichotomous outcomes (“yes” or “no” for each item).
Results: Of 4644 reviews identified, 309 were systematic reviews or meta-analyses primarily assessing harms (13 from CDSR; 296 from DARE). Despite a short time interval, the comparison between the years of 2008 and 2010-11 showed no difference on the quality of reporting over time (P=0.079). Titles in fewer than half the reviews (proportion of reviews 0.46 (95% confidence interval 0.40 to 0.52)) did not mention any harm related terms. Almost one third of DARE reviews (0.26 (0.22 to 0.31)) did not clearly define the adverse events reviewed, nor did they specify the study designs selected for inclusion in their methods section. Almost half of reviews (n=170) did not consider patient risk factors or length of follow-up when reviewing harms of an intervention. Of 67 reviews of complications related to surgery or other procedures, only four (0.05 (0.01 to 0.14)) reported professional qualifications of the individuals involved. The overall, unweighted, proportion of reviews with good reporting was 0.56 (0.55 to 0.57); corresponding proportions were 0.55 (0.53 to 0.57) in 2008, 0.55 (0.54 to 0.57) in 2009, and 0.57 (0.55 to 0.58) in 2010-11.
Conclusion: Systematic reviews compound the poor reporting of harms data in primary studies by failing to report on harms or doing so inadequately. Improving reporting of adverse events in systematic reviews is an important step towards a balanced assessment of an intervention.