Ensure there is scientific rationale for investigating each characteristic

Selection of characteristics should be motivated by biological and clinical hypotheses, ideally supported by evidence from sources other than the included studies. Subgroup analyses using characteristics that are implausible or clinically irrelevant are not likely to be useful and should be avoided. For example, a relationship between intervention effect and year of publication is seldom in itself clinically informative, and if statistically significant runs the risk of initiating a post hoc data dredge of factors that may have changed over time.


Prognostic factors are those that predict the outcome of a disease or condition, whereas effect modifiers are factors that influence how well an intervention works in affecting the outcome. Confusion between prognostic factors and effect modifiers is common in planning subgroup analyses, especially at the protocol stage. Prognostic factors are not good candidates for subgroup analyses unless they are also believed to modify the effect of intervention. For example, being a smoker may be a strong predictor of mortality within the next ten years, but there may not be reason for it to influence the effect of a drug therapy on mortality (Deeks 1998). Potential effect modifiers may include the precise interventions (dose of active treatment, choice of comparison treatment), how the study was done (length of follow-up) or methodology (design and quality).