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Systematic Reviews in the Health Sciences

A guide to systematic and other types of reviews in the health sciences. Also describes the types of support available to systematic review teams through the Health Sciences Library

Should you consider another type of review?

Not all reviews are, or should be, systematic reviews. The following article offers a typology of different review types you may want to consider (see Table 1 for brief descriptions):

Grant M, Booth A. A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal. 2009;26(2):91-108.

Some alternatives you might want to consider, depending on your time, scope, and resources, include:

Review Types

Purpose: To modify the methods of systematic reviewing to generate an answer in a shorter time frame. Rapid reviews may take three weeks to six months to complete. They tend to be restricted to more easily-retrievable evidence; as a result they sacrifice some of the rigour typical of full systematic reviews.


Example: Hersi M, Stevens A, Quach P, Hamel C, Thavorn K, Garritty C et al. Effectiveness of Personal Protective Equipment for Healthcare Workers Caring for Patients with Filovirus Disease: A Rapid Review. PLOS ONE. 2015;10(10):e0140290. 

Purpose: To situate the evidence in the context in which it is being applied - realizes that context influences the outcomes of an intervention. Often summed up as "what works, how, for whom, in what circumstances and to what extent?" (Greenhalgh et al., 2011).



Smylie J, Kirst M, McShane K, Firestone M, Wolfe S, O'Campo P. Understanding the role of Indigenous community participation in Indigenous prenatal and infant-toddler health promotion programs in Canada: A realist review. Social Science & Medicine. 2016;150:128-143.

Purpose: To assess the size and scope of available research literature, and identify gaps and research needs. The extent of the literature search depends on the reviewers time/scope constraints. While the quality of existing evidence may be described, there is usually not a formal quality appraisal process as with a systematic review.

Example: Shommu N, Ahmed S, Rumana N, Barron G, McBrien K, Turin T. What is the scope of improving immigrant and ethnic minority healthcare using community navigators: A systematic scoping review. International Journal for Equity in Health. 2016;15(1).

Purpose: To synthesize the findings of several reviews around the same question. Quality appraisal may be of the reviews themselves, or of the studies contained within them.


Example: Lau R, Stevenson F, Ong B, Dziedzic K, Treweek S, Eldridge S et al. Achieving change in primary care—effectiveness of strategies for improving implementation of complex interventions: systematic review of reviews. BMJ Open. 2015;5(12):e009993.

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