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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Uptake of newer methodological developments and the deployment of meta-analysis in diagnostic test research: a systematic review

Brian H Willis1* and Muireann Quigley2

Author Affiliations

1 Biostatistics, University of Manchester, Jean McFarlane building, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK

2 Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, University of Manchester, Williamson building, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:27  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-27

Published: 14 March 2011



The last decade has seen a number of methodological developments in meta-analysis of diagnostic test studies. However, it is unclear whether such developments have permeated the wider research community and on which applications they are being deployed. The objective was to assess the uptake and deployment of the main methodological developments in the meta-analysis of diagnostic tests, and identify the tests and target disorders most commonly evaluated by meta-analysis.


Design - systematic review. Data Sources - Medline, EMBASE, CINAHL, Cochrane, PsychInfo, Global health, HMIC, and AMED were searched for studies published before 31st December 2008. Selection criteria - studies were included if they satisfied all of the following: evaluated a diagnostic test; measured test performance; searched two or more databases; stated search terms and inclusion criteria; used a statistical method to summarise performance. Data extraction - included the following data items: year; test; reference standard; target disorder; setting; statistical and quality methods.


236 studies were included. Over the last 5 years the number of meta-analyses published has increased, but the uptake of new statistical methods lags behind. Pooling the sensitivity and specificity and using the SROC remain the preferred methods for analysis in 70% of studies, with the bivariate random effects and HSROC model being used in only 22% and 5% of studies respectively. In contrast, between 2006 and 2008 the QUADAS tool was used in 40% of studies. Broadly, radiological imaging was the most frequent category of tests analysed (36%), with cancer (22%) and infection (21%) being the most common categories of target disorder. Nearly 80% of tests analysed were those normally used in specialist settings.


Although quality assessment in meta-analyses has improved with the introduction of QUADAS, uptake of the newer statistical methods is still lagging behind. Furthermore, the focus of secondary research seems to be in evaluating specialist tests in specialist settings, in contrast to the more routine tests and settings encountered in the majority of clinical practice.