Background Many meta-analyses contain only a small number of studies, which makes it difficult to estimate the extent of between-study heterogeneity. Bayesian meta-analysis allows incorporation of external evidence on heterogeneity, and offers advantages over conventional random-effects meta-analysis. To assist in this, we provide empirical evidence on the likely extent of heterogeneity in particular areas of health care.
Methods Our analyses included 14 886 meta-analyses from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. We classified each meta-analysis according to the type of outcome, type of intervention comparison and medical specialty. By modelling the study data from all meta-analyses simultaneously, using the log odds ratio scale, we investigated the impact of meta-analysis characteristics on the underlying between-study heterogeneity variance. Predictive distributions were obtained for the heterogeneity expected in future meta-analyses.
Results Between-study heterogeneity variances for meta-analyses in which the outcome was all-cause mortality were found to be on average 17% (95% CI 10–26) of variances for other outcomes. In meta-analyses comparing two active pharmacological interventions, heterogeneity was on average 75% (95% CI 58–95) of variances for non-pharmacological interventions. Meta-analysis size was found to have only a small effect on heterogeneity. Predictive distributions are presented for nine different settings, defined by type of outcome and type of intervention comparison. For example, for a planned meta-analysis comparing a pharmacological intervention against placebo or control with a subjectively measured outcome, the predictive distribution for heterogeneity is a log-normal (−2.13, 1.582) distribution, which has a median value of 0.12. In an example of meta-analysis of six studies, incorporating external evidence led to a smaller heterogeneity estimate and a narrower confidence interval for the combined intervention effect.
Conclusions Meta-analysis characteristics were strongly associated with the degree of between-study heterogeneity, and predictive distributions for heterogeneity differed substantially across settings. The informative priors provided will be very beneficial in future meta-analyses including few studies.