Limitations

Whatever evidence we look at, there are likely to be limitations to it. After all, there are few circumstances in which one study, of whatever architecture, is likely to be able to answer all the questions we need to know about an intervention. For example, trials capturing information about the benefits of treatment will not be able to speak to the question of rare, but serious, adverse events.

There are many more potential limitations. Studies may not be properly conducted or reported according to recognized standards, like CONSORT for randomized trials (www.consort-statement. org), QUOROM for systematic reviews, and other standards for other studies. They may not measure outcomes that are useful, or be conducted on patients like ours, or present results in ways that we can easily comprehend; trials may have few events, when not much happens, but make much of not much, as it were. Observational studies, diagnostic studies, and health economic studies all have their own particular set of limitations, as well as the more pervasive sins of significance chasing, or finding evidence to support only preconceptions or idées fixes.

Perfection in terms of the overall quality and extent of evidence is never going to happen in a single study, if only because the ultimate question - whether this intervention will work in this patient and produce no adverse effects - cannot be answered. The average results we obtain from trials are difficult to extrapolate to individuals, and especially the patients in front of us (of which more later).

Acknowledging limitations

Increasingly we have come to expect authors to make some comment about the limitations of their studies, even if it is only a nod in the direction of acknowledging that there are some. This is not easy, because there is an element of subjectivity about this. Authors may also believe, with some reason, that spending too much time rubbishing their own results will result in rejection by journals, and rejection is not appreciated by pointy-headed academics who live or die by publications.

Even so, the dearth of space given over to discussing the limitations of studies is worrying. A recent survey [5] that examined 400 papers from 2005 in the six most cited research journals and two open-access journals showed that only 17% used at least one word denoting limitations in the context of the scientific work presented. Among the 25 most cited journals, only one (JAMA) asks for a comments section on study limitations, and most were silent.

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