Evaluating benefits and harms

Cochrane reviews aim to quantify the effects of healthcare interventions, both beneficial and harmful, and both expected and unexpected. Most reviews estimate the expected benefits of an intervention that are assessed in randomized trials. Randomized trials may report some of the harms of an intervention, either those which were expected and which the trial was designed to assess, or those which were not expected but which were collected in the trial as part of standard monitoring of safety. However, many serious harms of an intervention are too rare or do not appear during the follow-up period of randomized trials, and therefore will not be reported. Therefore, one of the most important roles for reviews of NRS is to assess potential unexpected or rare harms of interventions (reason (c) in Section 13.1.1). Criteria for selecting important and relevant studies for evaluating rare or long-term adverse and unexpected effects are difficult to set. Although the relative strengths and weaknesses of different study designs are the same as for beneficial outcomes, the choice of study designs to include may depend on both the frequency of an outcome and its importance. For example, for some rare adverse outcomes only case series or case-control studies may be available. Study designs that are more susceptible to bias may be acceptable for evaluation of serious events in the absence of better evidence.


Confounding may be less of a threat to the validity of a review when researching rare harms or unexpected effects of interventions than when researching expected effects, since it is argued that ‘confounding by indication’ mainly influences treatment decisions with respect to outcomes about which the clinicians are primarily concerned. However, confounding can never be ruled out because the same features that are confounders for the expected effects may also be direct confounders for the unexpected effects, or be correlated with features that are confounders.


A related issue is the need to distinguish between quantifying and detecting an effect of an intervention. Quantifying the intended benefits of an intervention – maximizing the precision of the estimate and minimizing susceptibility to bias – is critical when weighing up the relative merits of alternative interventions for the same condition. A review should also try to quantify the harms of an intervention, minimizing susceptibility to bias as far as possible. However, if a review can establish beyond reasonable doubt that an intervention causes a particular harm, the precision and susceptibility to bias of the estimated effect may not be critical. In other words, the seriousness of the harm may outweigh any benefit from the intervention. This situation is more likely to occur when there are competing interventions for a condition.