Objectives: To describe the problems encountered when undertaking systematic reviews of rehabilitation and to give advice to reviewers about ways of addressing these issues.
Background: Evidence-based practice has become established as a way of linking clinical practice with research evidence. The most robust evidence is usually considered to be that from randomized controlled trials, and from systematic reviews of these trials. However, most reviews have focused on drug and surgical interventions, and few reviews have been produced in the field of rehabilitation. This may be due to the unique difficulties that are posed by reviews in this area.
Experience of systematic reviews in aphasia: We describe the challenges that occurred when carrying out systematic reviews of speech and language therapy for aphasia following stroke, and of ways to deliver rehabilitation services to people who have suffered a stroke. Issues arose at all stages of the reviews and included: using expertise; planning the review; defining the health care problem, patients, outcomes and interventions of interest; searching for, interpreting and synthesizing the results of the studies identified; and deriving implications from the review.
Suggestions made to address these challenges include: developing a suitable team of reviewers; using inclusive and broad criteria for inclusion of trials to a review; developing appropriate search strategies; and using caution in arriving at conclusions. It is important to be explicit about decisions made during the review process concerning how to handle the challenges. Practical advice about carrying out reviews in the field of stroke rehabilitation is likely to be helpful to reviewers of other rehabilitative interventions.
There are likely to be relatively few studies available for such reviews, and limitations in drawing specific practical conclusions. Such undertakings are, however, useful in setting the agenda for further research.