Systematic reviews, systematic error and the acquisition of clinical knowledge
Division of Public Oral Health, Faculty of Health Science, University of the Witwatersrand, 7 York Road, 2193 Parktown/Johannesburg, South Africa
BMC Medical Research Methodology 2010, 10:53 doi:10.1186/1471-2288-10-53Published: 10 June 2010
Since its inception, evidence-based medicine and its application through systematic reviews, has been widely accepted. However, it has also been strongly criticised and resisted by some academic groups and clinicians. One of the main criticisms of evidence-based medicine is that it appears to claim to have unique access to absolute scientific truth and thus devalues and replaces other types of knowledge sources.
The various types of clinical knowledge sources are categorised on the basis of Kant's categories of knowledge acquisition, as being either 'analytic' or 'synthetic'. It is shown that these categories do not act in opposition but rather, depend upon each other. The unity of analysis and synthesis in knowledge acquisition is demonstrated during the process of systematic reviewing of clinical trials. Systematic reviews constitute comprehensive synthesis of clinical knowledge but depend upon plausible, analytical hypothesis development for the trials reviewed. The dangers of systematic error regarding the internal validity of acquired knowledge are highlighted on the basis of empirical evidence. It has been shown that the systematic review process reduces systematic error, thus ensuring high internal validity. It is argued that this process does not exclude other types of knowledge sources. Instead, amongst these other types it functions as an integrated element during the acquisition of clinical knowledge.
The acquisition of clinical knowledge is based on interaction between analysis and synthesis. Systematic reviews provide the highest form of synthetic knowledge acquisition in terms of achieving internal validity of results. In that capacity it informs the analytic knowledge of the clinician but does not replace it.