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Public Health: Types of Studies

Find articles and use evidence-based public health resources

Hierarchy of Research Designs

Definitions of Studies

Definitions of Study Types (From the British Medical Journal’s Clinical Evidence Glossary)

Meta-analysis: A statistical technique that summarizes the results of several studies in a single weighted estimate, in which more weight is given to results of studies with more events and sometimes to studies of higher quality.

Systematic Review: a review in which specified and appropriate methods have been used to identify, appraise, and summarise studies addressing a defined question. It can, but need not, involve meta-analysis). In Clinical Evidence, the term systematic review refers to a systematic review of RCTs unless specified otherwise.

Randomized Controlled Trial: a trial in which participants are randomly assigned to two or more groups: at least one (the experimental group) receiving an intervention that is being tested and another (the comparison or control group) receiving an alternative treatment or placebo. This design allows assessment of the relative effects of interventions.

Cohort Study: a non-experimental study design that follows a group of people (a cohort), and then looks at how events differ among people within the group. A study that examines a cohort, which differs in respect to exposure to some suspected risk factor (e.g. smoking), is useful for trying to ascertain whether exposure is likely to cause specified events (e.g. lung cancer). Prospective cohort studies (which track participants forward in time) are more reliable than retrospective cohort studies.

Case Control Study: a study design that examines a group of people who have experienced an event (usually an adverse event) and a group of people who have not experienced the same event, and looks at how exposure to suspect (usually noxious) agents differed between the two groups. This type of study design is most useful for trying to ascertain the cause of rare events, such as rare cancers.

Cross-Sectional Survey: A study design that involves surveying a population about an exposure, or condition, or both, at one point in time. It can be used for assessing prevalence of a condition in the population. Cross sectional studies should never be used for assessing causality of a treatment.

Case Series: analysis of series of people with the disease (there is no comparison group in case series).