Policy-makers and managers have always used a wide range of sources of evidence in making decisions about policy and the organization of services. However, they are under increasing pressure to adopt a more systematic approach to the utilization of the complex evidence base. Decision-makers must address complicated questions about the nature and significance of the problem to be addressed; the nature of proposed interventions; their differential impact; cost-effectiveness; acceptability and so on. This means that Cochrane-style reviews alone are not sufficient. Rather, they require access to syntheses of high-quality evidence that include research and non-research sources, and both qualitative and quantitative research findings. There is no single, agreed framework for synthesizing such diverse forms of evidence and many of the approaches potentially applicable to such an endeavour were devised for either qualitative or quantitative synthesis and/or for analysing primary data.
This paper describes the key stages in reviewing and synthesizing qualitative and quantitative evidence for decision-making and looks at various strategies that could offer a way forward. We identify four basic approaches: narrative (including traditional ‘literature reviews’ and more methodologically explicit approaches such as ‘thematic analysis’, ‘narrative synthesis’, ‘realist synthesis’ and ‘meta-narrative mapping’), qualitative (which convert all available evidence into qualitative form using techniques such as ‘meta-ethnography’ and ‘qualitative cross-case analysis’), quantitative (which convert all evidence into quantitative form using techniques such as‘quantitative case survey’ or ‘content analysis’) and Bayesian meta-analysis and decision analysis (which can convert qualitative evidence such as preferences about different outcomes into quantitative form or ‘weights’ to use in quantitative synthesis). The choice of approach will be contingent on the aim of the review and nature of the available evidence, and often more than one approach will be required