Advanced Care Research Centre

Blog - What is a systematic review and how do they help?

Kris McGill and Stephen Malden explain what a systematic review is, how they are being approached and what key themes have come through as research questions for the ACRC research centre.

Posted by Kris McGill and Stephen Malden on 15th July 2021

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

What is a systematic review? 

There is evidence to suggest that research has been carried out since as early as 500 BC. The most famous example of early clinical research comes from James Lind, an Edinburgh University graduate, who trialled the use of treatments for scurvy among sailors in 1747. With research having been conducted for hundreds of years, it is clear that for many scientific questions the answers may already exist. We can find these answers by looking at all the relevant research that covers a particularly research question and combine it in meaningful way. 

This process is commonly referred to as reviewing the literature. There are many different approaches to this, from narrative reviews that find and combine research informally, to those that go through systematic steps in order to find the most ‘true’ answer. The latter approach is called a systematic review and is thought to be one of the best methods as it uses repeatable methods, which remove many forms of bias, in order to find, extract, and analyse data.  

While results from primary studies, such as randomised controlled trials, can be the most interesting to the research community and general public, it is often the results of systematic reviews that ultimately lead to changes in policy and practice, which highlights the importance of doing this kind of work. 


How have we approached our reviews at the ACRC? 

At the newly formed ACRC, we are starting off with four well-constructed systematic reviews. These reviews will answer some fundamental questions for our research centre, and ensure that we conduct research in the right area and ask the right questions. However, deciding what review questions were the most important to tackle was a challenging task. We were hired at the start of the year to help decide the focus of these reviews and conduct them over the following year.  

We adopted a common consensus-based methodology to bring everyone from the ACRC together to decide what review questions to take on. We used the ‘modified Delphi method’ that utilises an online survey and consensus meeting to prioritise our questions. After we had our list of prioritised questions, we formed small working groups for the top four. These top four questions have now been developed into protocols, which outline exactly how we will conduct each review. People with lived experience have also helped to shape the review questions and protocols. 


What are the key themes coming through?  

The four questions that we will take on over the next year are:  

  1. What are the facilitators and barriers to implementing new technologies to support paid and unpaid care for older adults? 

  1. Which digital technologies are being used to enable older people to remain in their living environments and delay or avoid increases in need for social care support?  

  1. What do we know about the networks older adults receiving care are embedded within and the forms of value across these?  

  1. In older people, in high-income countries, which community-based health and social care organisational interventions are most effective at improving or maintaining quality of life and independent living? 


Our hope is that the findings we produce from these four reviews will help to guide the future direction of the important primary research that will take place at the ACRC.  


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