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Online ISSN: 1099-176X    Print ISSN: 1091-4358
The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics
Volume 2, Issue 3, 1999. Pages: 99-106

Published Online: 24 Dec 1999

Copyright © 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

 Research Article
Rational decision-making in mental health: the role of systematic reviews
Simon M Gilbody 1 *, Mark Petticrew 2
1NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York YO10 5DD, UK
2MRC Medical Sociology Unit, Glasgow, UK

*Correspondence to Simon M Gilbody, NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York, YO10 5DD, UK.

Background: "Systematic reviews" have come to be recognized as the most rigorous method of summarizing confusing and often contradictory primary research in a transparent and reproducible manner. Their greatest impact has been in the summarization of epidemiological literature - particularly that relating to clinical effectiveness. Systematic reviews also have a potential to inform rational decision-making in healthcare policy and to form a component of economic evaluation. Aims of the study: This article aims to introduce the rationale behind systematic reviews and, using examples from mental health, to introduce the strengths and limitations of systematic reviews, particularly in informing mental health policy and economic evaluation. Methods: Examples are selected from recent controversies surrounding the introduction of new psychiatric drugs (anti-depressants and anti-schizophrenia drugs) and methods of delivering psychiatric care in the community (case management and assertive community treatment). The potential for systematic reviews to (i) produce best estimates of clinical efficacy and effectiveness, (ii) aid economic evaluation and policy decision-making and (iii) highlight gaps in the primary research knowledge base are discussed. Lastly examples are selected from outside mental health to show how systematic reviews have a potential to be explicitly used in economic and health policy evaluation. Results: Systematic reviews produce the best estimates of clinical efficacy, which can form an important component of economic evaluation. Importantly, serious methodological flaws and areas of uncertainty in the primary research literature are identified within an explicit framework. Summary indices of clinical effectiveness can be produced, but it is difficult to produce such summary indices of cost effectiveness by pooling economic data from primary studies. Modelling is commonly used in economic and policy evaluation. Here, systematic reviews can provide the best estimates of effectiveness and, importantly, highlight areas of uncertainty that can be used in "sensitivity analysis". Discussion: Systematic reviews are an important recent methodological advance, the potential for which has only begun to be realized in mental health. This use of systematic reviews is probably most advanced in producing critical summaries of clinical effectiveness data. Systematic reviews cannot produce valid and believable conclusions when the primary research literature is of poor quality. An important function of systematic reviews will be in highlighting this poor quality research which is of little use in mental health decision making. Implications for health provision: Health care provision should be both clinically and cost effective. Systematic reviews are a key component in ensuring that this goal is achieved. Implications for health policies: Systematic reviews have potential to inform health policy. Examples presented show that health policy is often made without due consideration of the research evidence. Systematic reviews can provide robust and believable answers, which can help inform rational decision-making. Importantly, systematic reviews can highlight the need for important primary research and can inform the design of this research such that it provides answers that will help in forming healthcare policy. Implications for further research: Systematic reviews should precede costly (and often unnecessary) primary research. Many areas of health policy and practice have yet to be evaluated using systematic review methodology. Methods for the summarization of economic data are methodologically complex and deserve further research. Copyright © 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Received: 15 February 1999; Accepted: 1 September 1999