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Basics of Writing Review Articles

Almıla erol.

Adjunct Faculty, Psychiatry & Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA

Evidence-based medicine forms the essence of medical practice in the modern world. No wonder review articles are the mainstay for evidence-based medicine.

Review articles provide a critical summary of the existing literature to explain the current state of scientific evidence on a particular topic. A well-written review article must summarize key research findings, reference must-read articles, describe current areas of agreement as well as controversies and debates, point out gaps in current knowledge, depict unanswered questions, and suggest directions for future research ( 1 ).

During the last decades, there has been a great expansion in the range of review methodologies resulting in many new review types ( 2 , 3 ). In an attempt to classify review types, Sutton et al. defined 48 different review types which they categorized into seven review families: traditional reviews, systematic reviews, review of reviews, rapid reviews, qualitative reviews, mixed method reviews and purpose specific reviews (for the full list of review types please see Sutton et al.) ( 2 ). To date, traditional reviews and systematic reviews have been most widely used in the field of medicine.

Traditional reviews usually cover advances in different aspects of a chosen topic and provide assessment of the subject within a broad spectrum. No formal guidance exists for traditional reviews. However, they have become increasingly more comprehensive and systematic since the emergence of systematic reviews. Narrative review, narrative summary, critical review, integrative review, and state of the art review are examples of traditional reviews ( 2 ).

Systematic reviews adopt a specific aim and a well-defined, rigorous methodology to enlighten a particular question. They usually focus on specific study types such as randomized controlled studies, observational studies, etc. They have well-defined reporting standards and guidance. Systematic reviews provide the highest level of evidence in medical sciences, playing an important role in the development of clinical guidelines ( 4 ). Meta-analysis is the most popular example of quantitative systematic review types.

  • Review articles summarize the current state of evidence on a particular topic
  • Review articles translate the relevance of evidence for readers
  • Independent of the review type, all reviews must have a predefined methodology
  • The methods utilized for the review should be explained clearly in the review paper
  • Review papers should be written in a structured format

Considering the overwhelming number of diverse review types, the initial burden authors face is to choose the review type that matches their purpose best. Despite the continuous rise in the number of review types, there are sources that provide guidance about this issue ( 5 ). Authors are highly recommended to examine and learn about different review methodologies before they decide on their review approach.

International guidelines such as PRISMA ( 6 ), Cochrane ( 7 ), and JBI ( 8 ) provide detailed information about how to conduct reviews starting from the planning and protocol writing phases. The purpose of these international guidelines is to ensure transparent, unbiased, and complete reporting. Although the guidelines are focused on systematic reviews, they can also be used as bases for conducting other types of reviews. PRISMA encourages journal editors and reviewers to use the guideline for evaluation of review papers. PRISMA checklist is available online in different languages including Turkish at www.prisma-statement.org ( 9 ).

No matter what type of review is undertaken, the key points in a review article are to have a predefined methodology which is clearly explained in the text, and to have a structured format. Just like research papers, the most common and convenient practice is to write review papers in “introduction, methods, results, and discussion (IMRaD)” format accompanied by title, abstract, key words, and references.

The title makes the first introductory and is the most important sentence of the review paper. Like research paper titles, it must be brief, informative, and interesting all at the same time. It must contain the key words or their derivatives to increase the discoverability of the article via search engines. In addition, the type of the review should be accurately stated in the title.

The aim of the introduction is to explain why the review is undertaken and to persuade the readers for its necessity. In the introduction section, the authors must mention the latest developments about the subject of concern and explain why a review is needed. It is a good practice to refer to previous review papers on the subject and state what makes the current review different than the previous ones.

The methods section of the review paper should be written detailed enough to prove its adequacy and make it possible to be reconducted including more recent papers in the future. Explicit scientific methods are required for systematic reviews as defined by international guidelines ( 7 – 9 ). Although no guidelines exist for traditional narrative reviews, they too should have a rational methodology explained clearly. The methods section of every review article should state the key words used for the search, data bases screened, and the time frame chosen for the literature search. It should also explain the inclusion and exclusion criteria used for the selection of papers.

The results section should include a flow chart which shows the number of identified, included, and excluded papers along with the reasons for exclusion, as described in PRISMA flow diagram guidelines ( 9 ). Results section should cite and present characteristics and outcomes of each one of the included studies, providing the necessary information to assess their quality, validity, and contribution. The most relevant information about the included articles should be depicted in literature summary tables. They are an essential part of the review article as they provide information at one glance and make the paper more readable. Literature summary tables must contain information about methods, frameworks, strengths, limitations, and conceptual contribution of each article ( 10 ). Oversized tables must be presented as supplementary files.

Discussion section provides a general interpretation of the results and presents expert opinion. Writing a review article is not only about extracting relevant previous work and analyzing them, but also about making synthesis and drawing conclusions. Therefore, providing an objective interpretation of the results and guiding readers for better understanding of the current evidence should form the central part of the discussion. Wherever there is not enough evidence to make objective conclusions, the lack of evidence should be stated instead. Limitations, biases and gaps of the included literature should be discussed along with the limitations of the review process itself. It is critical to discuss the potential impacts of the results for future research and clinical practice.

In conclusion, reviews are objective attempts to examine the current state of evidence on a particular topic and its impacts. A review paper should explain why the review is undertaken, describe the methodology used, introduce the articles included, and provide expert opinion on the evidence achieved in a structured format. High quality reviews are essential in guiding clinical practice and future research along with policy making.

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;65(2):251-258

Traditional clinical review articles, also known as updates, differ from systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Updates selectively review the medical literature while discussing a topic broadly. Nonquantitative systematic reviews comprehensively examine the medical literature, seeking to identify and synthesize all relevant information to formulate the best approach to diagnosis or treatment. Meta-analyses (quantitative systematic reviews) seek to answer a focused clinical question, using rigorous statistical analysis of pooled research studies. This article presents guidelines for writing an evidence-based clinical review article for American Family Physician . First, the topic should be of common interest and relevance to family practice. Include a table of the continuing medical education objectives of the review. State how the literature search was done and include several sources of evidence-based reviews, such as the Cochrane Collaboration, BMJ's Clinical Evidence , or the InfoRetriever Web site. Where possible, use evidence based on clinical outcomes relating to morbidity, mortality, or quality of life, and studies of primary care populations. In articles submitted to American Family Physician , rate the level of evidence for key recommendations according to the following scale: level A (randomized controlled trial [RCT], meta-analysis); level B (other evidence); level C (consensus/expert opinion). Finally, provide a table of key summary points.

American Family Physician is particularly interested in receiving clinical review articles that follow an evidence-based format. Clinical review articles, also known as updates, differ from systematic reviews and meta-analyses in important ways. 1 Updates selectively review the medical literature while discussing a topic broadly. An example of such a topic is, “The diagnosis and treatment of myocardial ischemia.” Systematic reviews comprehensively examine the medical literature, seeking to identify and synthesize all relevant information to formulate the best approach to diagnosis or treatment. Examples are many of the systematic reviews of the Cochrane Collaboration or BMJ's Clinical Evidence compendium. Meta-analyses are a special type of systematic review. They use quantitative methods to analyze the literature and seek to answer a focused clinical question, using rigorous statistical analysis of pooled research studies. An example is, “Do beta blockers reduce mortality following myocardial infarction?”

The best clinical review articles base the discussion on existing systematic reviews and meta-analyses, and incorporate all relevant research findings about the management of a given disorder. Such evidence-based updates provide readers with powerful summaries and sound clinical guidance.

In this article, we present guidelines for writing an evidence-based clinical review article, especially one designed for continuing medical education (CME) and incorporating CME objectives into its format. This article may be read as a companion piece to a previous article and accompanying editorial about reading and evaluating clinical review articles. 1 , 2 Some articles may not be appropriate for an evidence-based format because of the nature of the topic, the slant of the article, a lack of sufficient supporting evidence, or other factors. We encourage authors to review the literature and, wherever possible, rate key points of evidence. This process will help emphasize the summary points of the article and strengthen its teaching value.

Topic Selection

Choose a common clinical problem and avoid topics that are rarities or unusual manifestations of disease or that have curiosity value only. Whenever possible, choose common problems for which there is new information about diagnosis or treatment. Emphasize new information that, if valid, should prompt a change in clinical practice, such as the recent evidence that spironolactone therapy improves survival in patients who have severe congestive heart failure. 3 Similarly, new evidence showing that a standard treatment is no longer helpful, but may be harmful, would also be important to report. For example, patching most traumatic corneal abrasions may actually cause more symptoms and delay healing compared with no patching. 4

Searching the Literature

When searching the literature on your topic, please consult several sources of evidence-based reviews ( Table 1 ) . Look for pertinent guidelines on the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of the disorder being discussed. Incorporate all high-quality recommendations that are relevant to the topic. When reviewing the first draft, look for all key recommendations about diagnosis and, especially, treatment. Try to ensure that all recommendations are based on the highest level of evidence available. If you are not sure about the source or strength of the recommendation, return to the literature, seeking out the basis for the recommendation.

In particular, try to find the answer in an authoritative compendium of evidence-based reviews, or at least try to find a meta-analysis or well-designed randomized controlled trial (RCT) to support it. If none appears to be available, try to cite an authoritative consensus statement or clinical guideline, such as a National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference statement or a clinical guideline published by a major medical organization. If no strong evidence exists to support the conventional approach to managing a given clinical situation, point this out in the text, especially for key recommendations. Keep in mind that much of traditional medical practice has not yet undergone rigorous scientific study, and high-quality evidence may not exist to support conventional knowledge or practice.

Patient-Oriented vs. Disease-Oriented Evidence

With regard to types of evidence, Shaughnessy and Slawson 5 – 7 developed the concept of Patient-Oriented Evidence that Matters (POEM), in distinction to Disease-Oriented Evidence (DOE). POEM deals with outcomes of importance to patients, such as changes in morbidity, mortality, or quality of life. DOE deals with surrogate end points, such as changes in laboratory values or other measures of response. Although the results of DOE sometimes parallel the results of POEM, they do not always correspond ( Table 2 ) . 2 When possible, use POEM-type evidence rather than DOE. When DOE is the only guidance available, indicate that key clinical recommendations lack the support of outcomes evidence. Here is an example of how the latter situation might appear in the text: “Although prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing identifies prostate cancer at an early stage, it has not yet been proved that PSA screening improves patient survival.” (Note: PSA testing is an example of DOE, a surrogate marker for the true outcomes of importance—improved survival, decreased morbidity, and improved quality of life.)

Evaluating the Literature

Evaluate the strength and validity of the literature that supports the discussion (see the following section, Levels of Evidence). Look for meta-analyses, high-quality, randomized clinical trials with important outcomes (POEM), or well-designed, nonrandomized clinical trials, clinical cohort studies, or case-controlled studies with consistent findings. In some cases, high-quality, historical, uncontrolled studies are appropriate (e.g., the evidence supporting the efficacy of Papanicolaou smear screening). Avoid anecdotal reports or repeating the hearsay of conventional wisdom, which may not stand up to the scrutiny of scientific study (e.g., prescribing prolonged bed rest for low back pain).

Look for studies that describe patient populations that are likely to be seen in primary care rather than subspecialty referral populations. Shaughnessy and Slawson's guide for writers of clinical review articles includes a section on information and validity traps to avoid. 2

Levels of Evidence

Readers need to know the strength of the evidence supporting the key clinical recommendations on diagnosis and treatment. Many different rating systems of varying complexity and clinical relevance are described in the medical literature. Recently, the third U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) emphasized the importance of rating not only the study type (RCT, cohort study, case-control study, etc.), but also the study quality as measured by internal validity and the quality of the entire body of evidence on a topic. 8

While it is important to appreciate these evolving concepts, we find that a simplified grading system is more useful in AFP . We have adopted the following convention, using an ABC rating scale. Criteria for high-quality studies are discussed in several sources. 8 , 9 See the AFP Web site ( www.aafp.org/afp/authors ) for additional information about levels of evidence and see the accompanying editorial in this issue discussing the potential pitfalls and limitations of any rating system.

Level A (randomized controlled trial/meta-analysis): High-quality randomized controlled trial (RCT) that considers all important outcomes. High-quality meta-analysis (quantitative systematic review) using comprehensive search strategies.

Level B (other evidence): A well-designed, nonrandomized clinical trial. A nonquantitative systematic review with appropriate search strategies and well-substantiated conclusions. Includes lower quality RCTs, clinical cohort studies, and case-controlled studies with non-biased selection of study participants and consistent findings. Other evidence, such as high-quality, historical, uncontrolled studies, or well-designed epidemiologic studies with compelling findings, is also included.

Level C (consensus/expert opinion): Consensus viewpoint or expert opinion.

Each rating is applied to a single reference in the article, not to the entire body of evidence that exists on a topic. Each label should include the letter rating (A, B, C), followed by the specific type of study for that reference. For example, following a level B rating, include one of these descriptors: (1) nonrandomized clinical trial; (2) nonquantitative systematic review; (3) lower quality RCT; (4) clinical cohort study; (5) case-controlled study; (6) historical uncontrolled study; (7) epidemiologic study.

Here are some examples of the way evidence ratings should appear in the text:

“To improve morbidity and mortality, most patients in congestive heart failure should be treated with an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor. [Evidence level A, RCT]”

“The USPSTF recommends that clinicians routinely screen asymptomatic pregnant women 25 years and younger for chlamydial infection. [Evidence level B, non-randomized clinical trial]”

“The American Diabetes Association recommends screening for diabetes every three years in all patients at high risk of the disease, including all adults 45 years and older. [Evidence level C, expert opinion]”

When scientifically strong evidence does not exist to support a given clinical recommendation, you can point this out in the following way:

“Physical therapy is traditionally prescribed for the treatment of adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder), although there are no randomized outcomes studies of this approach.”

Format of the Review


The introduction should define the topic and purpose of the review and describe its relevance to family practice. The traditional way of doing this is to discuss the epidemiology of the condition, stating how many people have it at one point in time (prevalence) or what percentage of the population is expected to develop it over a given period of time (incidence). A more engaging way of doing this is to indicate how often a typical family physician is likely to encounter this problem during a week, month, year, or career. Emphasize the key CME objectives of the review and summarize them in a separate table entitled “CME Objectives.”

The methods section should briefly indicate how the literature search was conducted and what major sources of evidence were used. Ideally, indicate what predetermined criteria were used to include or exclude studies (e.g., studies had to be independently rated as being high quality by an established evaluation process, such as the Cochrane Collaboration). Be comprehensive in trying to identify all major relevant research. Critically evaluate the quality of research reviewed. Avoid selective referencing of only information that supports your conclusions. If there is controversy on a topic, address the full scope of the controversy.

The discussion can then follow the typical format of a clinical review article. It should touch on one or more of the following subtopics: etiology, pathophysiology, clinical presentation (signs and symptoms), diagnostic evaluation (history, physical examination, laboratory evaluation, and diagnostic imaging), differential diagnosis, treatment (goals, medical/surgical therapy, laboratory testing, patient education, and follow-up), prognosis, prevention, and future directions.

The review will be comprehensive and balanced if it acknowledges controversies, unresolved questions, recent developments, other viewpoints, and any apparent conflicts of interest or instances of bias that might affect the strength of the evidence presented. Emphasize an evidence-supported approach or, where little evidence exists, a consensus viewpoint. In the absence of a consensus viewpoint, you may describe generally accepted practices or discuss one or more reasoned approaches, but acknowledge that solid support for these recommendations is lacking.

In some cases, cost-effectiveness analyses may be important in deciding how to implement health care services, especially preventive services. 10 When relevant, mention high-quality cost-effectiveness analyses to help clarify the costs and health benefits associated with alternative interventions to achieve a given health outcome. Highlight key points about diagnosis and treatment in the discussion and include a summary table of the key take-home points. These points are not necessarily the same as the key recommendations, whose level of evidence is rated, although some of them will be.

Use tables, figures, and illustrations to highlight key points, and present a step-wise, algorithmic approach to diagnosis or treatment when possible.

Rate the evidence for key statements, especially treatment recommendations. We expect that most articles will have at most two to four key statements; some will have none. Rate only those statements that have corresponding references and base the rating on the quality and level of evidence presented in the supporting citations. Use primary sources (original research, RCTs, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews) as the basis for determining the level of evidence. In other words, the supporting citation should be a primary research source of the information, not a secondary source (such as a nonsystematic review article or a textbook) that simply cites the original source. Systematic reviews that analyze multiple RCTs are good sources for determining ratings of evidence.

The references should include the most current and important sources of support for key statements (i.e., studies referred to, new information, controversial material, specific quantitative data, and information that would not usually be found in most general reference textbooks). Generally, these references will be key evidence-based recommendations, meta-analyses, or landmark articles. Although some journals publish exhaustive lists of reference citations, AFP prefers to include a succinct list of key references. (We will make more extensive reference lists available on our Web site or provide links to your personal reference list.)

You may use the following checklist to ensure the completeness of your evidence-based review article; use the source list of reviews to identify important sources of evidence-based medicine materials.

Checklist for an Evidence-Based Clinical Review Article

The topic is common in family practice, especially topics in which there is new, important information about diagnosis or treatment.

The introduction defines the topic and the purpose of the review, and describes its relevance to family practice.

A table of CME objectives for the review is included.

The review states how you did your literature search and indicates what sources you checked to ensure a comprehensive assessment of relevant studies (e.g., MEDLINE, the Cochrane Collaboration Database, the Center for Research Support, TRIP Database).

Several sources of evidence-based reviews on the topic are evaluated ( Table 1 ) .

Where possible, POEM (dealing with changes in morbidity, mortality, or quality of life) rather than DOE (dealing with mechanistic explanations or surrogate end points, such as changes in laboratory tests) is used to support key clinical recommendations ( Table 2 ) .

Studies of patients likely to be representative of those in primary care practices, rather than subspecialty referral centers, are emphasized.

Studies that are not only statistically significant but also clinically significant are emphasized; e.g., interventions with meaningful changes in absolute risk reduction and low numbers needed to treat. (See http://www.cebm.net/index.aspx?o=1116 .) 11

The level of evidence for key clinical recommendations is labeled using the following rating scale: level A (RCT/meta-analysis), level B (other evidence), and level C (consensus/expert opinion).

Acknowledge controversies, recent developments, other viewpoints, and any apparent conflicts of interest or instances of bias that might affect the strength of the evidence presented.

Highlight key points about diagnosis and treatment in the discussion and include a summary table of key take-home points.

Use tables, figures, and illustrations to highlight key points and present a step-wise, algorithmic approach to diagnosis or treatment when possible.

Emphasize evidence-based guidelines and primary research studies, rather than other review articles, unless they are systematic reviews.

The essential elements of this checklist are summarized in Table 3 .

Siwek J. Reading and evaluating clinical review articles. Am Fam Physician. 1997;55:2064-2069.

Shaughnessy AF, Slawson DC. Getting the most from review articles: a guide for readers and writers. Am Fam Physician. 1997;55:2155-60.

Pitt B, Zannad F, Remme WJ, Cody R, Castaigne A, Perez A, et al. The effect of spironolactone on morbidity and mortality in patients with severe heart failure. N Engl J Med. 1999;341:709-17.

Flynn CA, D'Amico F, Smith G. Should we patch corneal abrasions? A meta-analysis. J Fam Pract. 1998;47:264-70.

Slawson DC, Shaughnessy AF, Bennett JH. Becoming a medical information master: feeling good about not knowing everything. J Fam Pract. 1994;38:505-13.

Shaughnessy AF, Slawson DC, Bennett JH. Becoming an information master: a guidebook to the medical information jungle. J Fam Pract. 1994;39:489-99.

Slawson DC, Shaughnessy AF. Becoming an information master: using POEMs to change practice with confidence. Patient-oriented evidence that matters. J Fam Pract. 2000;49:63-7.

Harris RP, Helfand M, Woolf SH, Lohr KN, Mulrow CD, Teutsch SM, et al. Methods Work Group, Third U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Current methods of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. A review of the process. Am J Prev Med. 2001;20(3 suppl):21-35.

CATbank topics: levels of evidence and grades of recommendations. Retrieved November 2001, from: http://www.cebm.net/ .

Saha S, Hoerger TJ, Pignone MP, Teutsch SM, Helfand M, Mandelblatt JS. for the Cost Work Group of the Third U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The art and science of incorporating cost effectiveness into evidence-based recommendations for clinical preventive services. Am J Prev Med. 2001;20(3 suppl):36-43.

Evidence-based medicine glossary. Retrieved November 2001, from: http://www.cebm.net/index.aspx?o=1116 .

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  • 04 December 2020
  • Correction 09 December 2020

How to write a superb literature review

Andy Tay is a freelance writer based in Singapore.

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Literature reviews are important resources for scientists. They provide historical context for a field while offering opinions on its future trajectory. Creating them can provide inspiration for one’s own research, as well as some practice in writing. But few scientists are trained in how to write a review — or in what constitutes an excellent one. Even picking the appropriate software to use can be an involved decision (see ‘Tools and techniques’). So Nature asked editors and working scientists with well-cited reviews for their tips.

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Correction 09 December 2020 : An earlier version of the tables in this article included some incorrect details about the programs Zotero, Endnote and Manubot. These have now been corrected.

Hsing, I.-M., Xu, Y. & Zhao, W. Electroanalysis 19 , 755–768 (2007).

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Ledesma, H. A. et al. Nature Nanotechnol. 14 , 645–657 (2019).

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Brahlek, M., Koirala, N., Bansal, N. & Oh, S. Solid State Commun. 215–216 , 54–62 (2015).

Choi, Y. & Lee, S. Y. Nature Rev. Chem . https://doi.org/10.1038/s41570-020-00221-w (2020).

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A necessary skill for any doctor

What causes disease, which drug is best, does this patient need surgery, and what is the prognosis? Although experience helps in answering these questions, ultimately they are best answered by evidence based medicine. But how do you assess the evidence? As a medical student, and throughout your career as a doctor, critical appraisal of published literature is an important skill to develop and refine. At medical school you will repeatedly appraise published literature and write literature reviews. These activities are commonly part of a special study module, research project for an intercalated degree, or another type of essay based assignment.

Formulating a question

Literature reviews are most commonly performed to help answer a particular question. While you are at medical school, there will usually be some choice regarding the area you are going to review.

Once you have identified a subject area for review, the next step is to formulate a specific research question. This is arguably the most important step because a clear question needs to be defined from the outset, which you aim to answer by doing the review. The clearer the question, the more likely it is that the answer will be clear too. It is important to have discussions with your supervisor when formulating a research question as his or her input will be invaluable. The research question must be objective and concise because it is easier to search through the evidence with a clear question. The question also needs to be feasible. What is the point in having a question for which no published evidence exists? Your supervisor’s input will ensure you are not trying to answer an unrealistic question. Finally, is the research question clinically important? There are many research questions that may be answered, but not all of them will be relevant to clinical practice. The research question we will use as an example to work through in this article is, “What is the evidence for using angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors in patients with hypertension?”

Collecting the evidence

After formulating a specific research question for your literature review, the next step is to collect the evidence. Your supervisor will initially point you in the right direction by highlighting some of the more relevant papers published. Before doing the literature search it is important to agree a list of keywords with your supervisor. A source of useful keywords can be obtained by reading Cochrane reviews or other systematic reviews, such as those published in the BMJ . 1 2 A relevant Cochrane review for our research question on ACE inhibitors in hypertension is that by Heran and colleagues. 3 Appropriate keywords to search for the evidence include the words used in your research question (“angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor,” “hypertension,” “blood pressure”), details of the types of study you are looking for (“randomised controlled trial,” “case control,” “cohort”), and the specific drugs you are interested in (that is, the various ACE inhibitors such as “ramipril,” “perindopril,” and “lisinopril”).

Once keywords have been agreed it is time to search for the evidence using the various electronic medical databases (such as PubMed, Medline, and EMBASE). PubMed is the largest of these databases and contains online information and tutorials on how to do literature searches with worked examples. Searching the databases and obtaining the articles are usually free of charge through the subscription that your university pays. Early consultation with a medical librarian is important as it will help you perform your literature search in an impartial manner, and librarians can train you to do these searches for yourself.

Literature searches can be broad or tailored to be more specific. With our example, a broad search would entail searching all articles that contain the words “blood pressure” or “ACE inhibitor.” This provides a comprehensive list of all the literature, but there are likely to be thousands of articles to review subsequently (fig 1). ⇓ In contrast, various search restrictions can be applied on the electronic databases to filter out papers that may not be relevant to your review. Figure 2 gives an example of a specific search. ⇓ The search terms used in this case were “angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor” and “hypertension.” The limits applied to this search were all randomised controlled trials carried out in humans, published in the English language over the last 10 years, with the search terms appearing in the title of the study only. Thus the more specific the search strategy, the more manageable the number of articles to review (fig 3), and this will save you time. ⇓ However, this method risks your not identifying all the evidence in the particular field. Striking a balance between a broad and a specific search strategy is therefore important. This will come with experience and consultation with your supervisor. It is important to note that evidence is continually becoming available on these electronic databases and therefore repeating the same search at a later date can provide new evidence relevant to your review.


Fig 1 Results from a broad literature search using the term “angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor”

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Fig 2 Example of a specific literature search. The search terms used were “angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor” and “hypertension.” The limits applied to this search were all randomised controlled trials carried out in humans, published in English over the past 10 years, with the search terms appearing in the title of the study only


Fig 3 Results from a specific literature search (using the search terms and limits from figure 2)

Reading the abstracts (study summary) of the articles identified in your search may help you decide whether the study is applicable for your review—for example, the work may have been carried out using an animal model rather than in humans. After excluding any inappropriate articles, you need to obtain the full articles of studies you have identified. Additional relevant articles that may not have come up in your original search can also be found by searching the reference lists of the articles you have already obtained. Once again, you may find that some articles are still not applicable for your review, and these can also be excluded at this stage. It is important to explain in your final review what criteria you used to exclude articles as well as those criteria used for inclusion.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) publishes evidence based guidelines for the United Kingdom and therefore provides an additional resource for identifying the relevant literature in a particular field. 4 NICE critically appraises the published literature with recommendations for best clinical practice proposed and graded based on the quality of evidence available. Similarly, there are internationally published evidence based guidelines, such as those produced by the European Society of Cardiology and the American College of Chest Physicians, which can be useful when collecting the literature in a particular field. 5 6

Appraising the evidence

Once you have collected the evidence, you need to critically appraise the published material. Box 1 gives definitions of terms you will encounter when reading the literature. A brief guide of how to critically appraise a study is presented; however, it is advisable to consult the references cited for further details.

Box 1: Definitions of common terms in the literature 7

Prospective—collecting data in real time after the study is designed

Retrospective—analysis of data that have already been collected to determine associations between exposure and outcome

Hypothesis—proposed association between exposure and outcome. If presented in the negative it is called the null hypothesis

Variable—a quantity or quality that changes during the study and can be measured

Single blind—subjects are unaware of their treatment, but clinicians are aware

Double blind—both subjects and clinicians are unaware of treatment given

Placebo—a simulated medical intervention, with subjects not receiving the specific intervention or treatment being studied

Outcome measure/endpoint—clinical variable or variables measured in a study subsequently used to make conclusions about the original interventions or treatments administered

Bias—difference between reported results and true results. Many types exist (such as selection, allocation, and reporting biases)

Probability (P) value—number between 0 and 1 providing the likelihood the reported results occurred by chance. A P value of 0.05 means there is a 5% likelihood that the reported result occurred by chance

Confidence intervals—provides a range between two numbers within which one can be certain the results lie. A confidence interval of 95% means one can be 95% certain the actual results lie within the reported range

The study authors should clearly define their research question and ideally the hypothesis to be tested. If the hypothesis is presented in the negative, it is called the null hypothesis. An example of a null hypothesis is smoking does not cause lung cancer. The study is then performed to assess the significance of the exposure (smoking) on outcome (lung cancer).

A major part of the critical appraisal process is to focus on study methodology, with your key task being an assessment of the extent to which a study was susceptible to bias (the discrepancy between the reported results and the true results). It should be clear from the methods what type of study was performed (box 2).

Box 2: Different study types 7

Systematic review/meta-analysis—comprehensive review of published literature using predefined methodology. Meta-analyses combine results from various studies to give numerical data for the overall association between variables

Randomised controlled trial—random allocation of patients to one of two or more groups. Used to test a new drug or procedure

Cohort study—two or more groups followed up over a long period, with one group exposed to a certain agent (drug or environmental agent) and the other not exposed, with various outcomes compared. An example would be following up a group of smokers and a group of non-smokers with the outcome measure being the development of lung cancer

Case-control study—cases (those with a particular outcome) are matched as closely as possible (for age, sex, ethnicity) with controls (those without the particular outcome). Retrospective data analysis is performed to determine any factors associated with developing the particular outcomes

Cross sectional study—looks at a specific group of patients at a single point in time. Effectively a survey. An example is asking a group of people how many of them drink alcohol

Case report—detailed reports concerning single patients. Useful in highlighting adverse drug reactions

There are many different types of bias, which depend on the particular type of study performed, and it is important to look for these biases. Several published checklists are available that provide excellent resources to help you work through the various studies and identify sources of bias. The CONSORT statement (which stands for CONsolidated Standards Of Reporting Trials) provides a minimum set of recommendations for reporting randomised controlled trials and comprises a rigorous 25 item checklist, with variations available for other study types. 8 9 As would be expected, most (17 of 25) of the items focus on questions relating to the methods and results of the randomised trial. The remaining items relate to the title, abstract, introduction, and discussion of the study, in addition to questions on trial registration, protocol, and funding.

Jadad scoring provides a simple and validated system to assess the methodological quality of a randomised clinical trial using three questions. 10 The score ranges from zero to five, with one point given for a “yes” in each of the following questions. (1) Was the study described as randomised? (2) Was the study described as double blind? (3) Were there details of subject withdrawals, exclusions, and dropouts? A further point is given if (1) the method of randomisation was appropriate, and (2) the method of blinding was appropriate.

In addition, the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme provides excellent tools for assessing the evidence in all study types (box 2). 11 The Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine levels of evidence is yet another useful resource for assessing the methodological quality of all studies. 12

Ensure all patients have been accounted for and any exclusions, for whatever reason, are reported. Knowing the baseline demographic (age, sex, ethnicity) and clinical characteristics of the population is important. Results are usually reported as probability values or confidence intervals (box 1).

This should explain the major study findings, put the results in the context of the published literature, and attempt to account for any variations from previous work. Study limitations and sources of bias should be discussed. Authors’ conclusions should be supported by the study results and not unnecessarily extrapolated. For example, a treatment shown to be effective in animals does not necessarily mean it will work in humans.

The format for writing up the literature review usually consists of an abstract (short structured summary of the review), the introduction or background, methods, results, and discussion with conclusions. There are a number of good examples of how to structure a literature review and these can be used as an outline when writing your review. 13 14

The introduction should identify the specific research question you intend to address and briefly put this into the context of the published literature. As you have now probably realised, the methods used for the review must be clear to the reader and provide the necessary detail for someone to be able to reproduce the search. The search strategy needs to include a list of keywords used, which databases were searched, and the specific search limits or filters applied. Any grading of methodological quality, such as the CONSORT statement or Jadad scoring, must be explained in addition to any study inclusion or exclusion criteria. 6 7 8 The methods also need to include a section on the data collected from each of the studies, the specific outcomes of interest, and any statistical analysis used. The latter point is usually relevant only when performing meta-analyses.

The results section must clearly show the process of filtering down from the articles obtained from the original search to the final studies included in the review—that is, accounting for all excluded studies. A flowchart is usually best to illustrate this. Next should follow a brief description of what was done in the main studies, the number of participants, the relevant results, and any potential sources of bias. It is useful to group similar studies together as it allows comparisons to be made by the reader and saves repetition in your write-up. Boxes and figures should be used appropriately to illustrate important findings from the various studies.

Finally, in the discussion you need to consider the study findings in light of the methodological quality—that is, the extent of potential bias in each study that may have affected the study results. Using the evidence, you need to make conclusions in your review, and highlight any important gaps in the evidence base, which need to be dealt with in future studies. Working through drafts of the literature review with your supervisor will help refine your critical appraisal skills and the ability to present information concisely in a structured review article. Remember, if the work is good it may get published.

Originally published as: Student BMJ 2012;20:e404

Competing interests: None declared.

Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • ↵ The Cochrane Library. www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgibin/mrwhome/106568753/HOME?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0 .
  • ↵ British Medical Journal . www.bmj.com/ .
  • ↵ Heran BS, Wong MMY, Heran IK, Wright JM. Blood pressure lowering efficacy of angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors for primary hypertension. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2008 ; 4 : CD003823 , doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003823.pub2. OpenUrl PubMed
  • ↵ National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. www.nice.org.uk .
  • ↵ European Society of Cardiology. www.escardio.org/guidelines .
  • ↵ Geerts WH, Bergqvist D, Pineo GF, Heit JA, Samama CM, Lassen MR, et al. Prevention of venous thromboembolism: American College of Chest Physicians evidence-based clinical practice guidelines (8th ed). Chest 2008 ; 133 : 381 -453S. OpenUrl CrossRef
  • ↵ Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki .
  • ↵ Moher D, Schulz KF, Altman DG, Egger M, Davidoff F, Elbourne D, et al. The CONSORT statement: revised recommendations for improving the quality of reports of parallel-group randomised trials. Lancet 2001 ; 357 : 1191 -4. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ The CONSORT statement. www.consort-statement.org/ .
  • ↵ Jadad AR, Moore RA, Carroll D, Jenkinson C, Reynolds DJ, Gavaghan DJ, et al. Assessing the quality of reports of randomized clinical trials: is blinding necessary? Control Clin Trials 1996 ; 17 : 1 -12. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP). www.sph.nhs.uk/what-we-do/public-health-workforce/resources/critical-appraisals-skills-programme .
  • ↵ Oxford Centre for Evidence-based Medicine—Levels of Evidence. www.cebm.net .
  • ↵ Van den Bruel A, Thompson MJ, Haj-Hassan T, Stevens R, Moll H, Lakhanpaul M, et al . Diagnostic value of laboratory tests in identifying serious infections in febrile children: systematic review. BMJ 2011 ; 342 : d3082 . OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Awopetu AI, Moxey P, Hinchliffe RJ, Jones KG, Thompson MM, Holt PJ. Systematic review and meta-analysis of the relationship between hospital volume and outcome for lower limb arterial surgery. Br J Surg 2010 ; 97 : 797 -803. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed

how to write a review paper in medicine

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Role of methodologic guidelines, generalizability of guidelines, resistance to change within the scientific community.

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Methodologic Guidelines for Review Papers

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Douglas L. Weed, Methodologic Guidelines for Review Papers, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute , Volume 89, Issue 1, 1 January 1997, Pages 6–7, https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/89.1.6

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Reading a good review paper is one of the most efficient ways of becoming familiar with state-of-the-art research and practice on any topic in cancer biology, epidemiology, prevention, or treatment. Yet, what constitutes a good review? It must be clearly organized, recently written by a knowledgeable (expert) scientist, and describe a topic appropriate to the general readership of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute . A 10-year methodologic discussion, however, suggests that there is more to the quality of reviews than judgments about writing style, author's expertise, and choice of topic ( 1 – 18 ). Review papers are sources of scientific information and should be read (and written) with specific methodologic considerations in mind. The purpose of this editorial is to propose a set of guidelines for reviews submitted to the Journal, a general oncology journal.

Methodologic guidelines for review papers (and the related issue of quality) have been discussed in several journals, including in alphabetical order:

American Journal of Preventive Medicine ( 8 )

Annals of Internal Medicine ( 3 )

Annals of the New York Academy of Science ( 12 )

British Medical Journal ( 9 , 15–17 )

Canadian Family Physician ( 11 )

Canadian Medical Association Journal ( 2 , 4 , 5 )

Journal of the American Medical Association ( 18 )

Journal of Clinical Epidemiology ( 6 , 7 )

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health ( 10 , 14 )

Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery ( 13 )

These discussions reflect a historical trend on the part of journal editors to improve the quality of reviews ( 8 ). This trend is traceable to Light and Pillemer's ( 1 ) classic book and to a study published in 1987 showing that 50 randomly selected review papers published in four prominent American medical journals ( Annals of Internal Medicine, Archives of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, and New England Journal of Medicine ) did not use scientific methods in the identification, assessment, and synthesis of information ( 3 ). Some journals now require a description of methods used in preparing a review or a structured abstract ( 8 , 11 , 13 ). In general, methodologic guidelines—whether required or suggested—provide an objective basis on which editors and referees can judge submissions of review papers to journals ( 8 ). Guidelines also help readers assess the extent to which the information in reviews is complete and unbiased and if the research and/or practice recommendations made by the author(s) of the review are reasonable ( 8 ).

The following guidelines are recommended for authors submitting reviews to this Journal and may also be useful for editors, referees, and readers in their assessment of the quality of submitted and published reviews.

Statement of Purpose

A review paper should include a clearly stated purpose in terms of questions to be answered or goals to be met. Noting that the purpose is to review a topic is insufficient. Reviews summarize evidence for several possible purposes including, but not limited to, making research recommendations, making causal conclusions, or making public health or medical practice recommendations. Not all purposes are appropriate for a given review, but all reviews should include a clear statement of purpose.

Search Methods and Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

A review paper should describe the information sources searched. Computerized and manual databases, such as Medline, CANCERLIT, Index Medicus, and Current Contents, are typical examples. Other sources include reprint files and reference lists in books or published papers. In addition, a review paper should describe the inclusion criteria used in selecting the papers cited. Inclusions (and therefore exclusions) can be made on the basis of time period (e.g., papers published after 1990), type of publication (e.g., peer-reviewed, published, in press, abstracts, and proceedings), and by language (e.g., English). Inclusions may also be made on the basis of study design (e.g., observational/epidemiologic studies), topic (e.g., specific exposure-cancer association or class of chemotherapeutic agent), and by population studied (e.g., Hispanics, women, or animal models). Once these inclusion criteria are described, a review article may specify the number of studies identified by the search methods and the proportion selected for review. The reader of any review should have a clear idea of the search techniques used, what evidence was assessed, and what evidence was excluded.

Criteria for Evaluating Validity (or Quality) of Studies

A review paper should describe the criteria used to evaluate the quality of the evidence. There are many examples of such criteria: some applicable to specific design types, such as case-control studies, some applicable to a broader set of study designs (such as the hierarchy of evidence ( 19 ) used by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force or Physician's Data Query of the National Cancer Institute), and some applicable to types of biologic evidence (such as those used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer). Authors of reviews may wish to state their own criteria, including, but not limited to, sample size, laboratory and/or statistical methods, measurement error, confounding and other forms of bias, and statistical significance or confidence limits.

Methods for Summarizing Evidence

A review paper should describe the methods used for summarizing the evidence from the studies selected for review. These may range from simple narrative techniques to highly structured quantitative techniques, such as meta-analysis.

Criteria for Conclusions and Recommendations

A review paper should describe the methods used to make conclusions. For example, if causal (or preventive) conclusions are a stated purpose of the review of epidemiologic evidence, then inferential methods, such as those published by the Surgeon General's Office or by Austin Bradford Hill or others ( 20 ), should be stated. If public health or medical practice recommendations are a stated purpose of the review, then the methods used to make those recommendations should be clearly stated. In addition, there should be a discussion of the extent to which economic, ethical, and pragmatic considerations were used in arriving at the recommendations.

The primary purpose of these guidelines is to ensure that readers (including editors and referees) are informed about the methods used in preparing the review. Readers can then better assess the quality of the paper and not judge it solely on the basis of writing style, author's expertise, appropriateness of the topic, or other implicit criteria. Recommending that authors disclose their methods, however, is not the same as judging the appropriateness of the methods used. A wide range of methods is used in reviews, some more quantitative while others are more qualitative. Indeed, disclosing which methods are used may stimulate readers and authors to examine methodologic research issues, such as the predictability, reliability, and validity of search methods or methods of summarizing evidence. Ultimately, methodologic research on such issues could lead to an improvement in the overall quality of review papers.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute publishes reviews from many areas within the broad topic of oncology, including reviews on biology, epidemiology, prevention, and treatment. Nevertheless, the methodologic guidelines described above are applicable to any review submitted to the Journal. The only methodologic requirements are for authors to state the purpose of the review beyond “reviewing the evidence” and to state what methods were used in preparing the review. There is no requirement to use a particular method. Thus, these guide lines are generalizable to any review as long as the author of that review can state the purpose of the paper and can describe the search techniques, the studies included and excluded, the review author's approach to assessing the validity of studies, and the methods used to summarize evidence and make recommendations.

Although these guidelines are generalizable in principle to any review in the field of general oncology, some resistance to this proposal may be encountered. Change is often difficult for members of the scientific community, especially in situations in which there appears to be a challenge to the expertise of scientists and clinicians who, by virtue of that expertise, write reviews. However, no such challenge is intended. Rather, the only challenge found in this paper is for scientists to disclose the methods that they used to prepare reviews. Such disclosure (and the methodologic research it encourages) will eventually result in an improvement in the quality of reviews and thus an improvement in the quality of the Journal.

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  • The Pandora's Box of Evidence Synthesis and the case for a living Evidence Synthesis Taxonomy | BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, 2023
  • Meeting the review family: exploring review types and associated information retrieval requirements | Health Information and Libraries Journal, 2019
  • A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies | Health Information and Libraries Journal, 2009
  • Conceptual recommendations for selecting the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to answer research questions related to complex evidence | Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 2016
  • Methods for knowledge synthesis: an overview | Heart & Lung: The Journal of Critical Care, 2014
  • Not sure what type of review to conduct? Brief descriptions of each type plus tools to help you decide

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  • Ten simple rules for writing a literature review | PLoS Computational Biology, 2013
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  • Why, When, Who, What, How, and Where for Trainees Writing Literature Review Articles. | Annals of Biomed Engineering, 2019
  • So You Want to Write a Narrative Review Article? | Journal of Cardiothoracic and Anesthesia, 2021
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  • The Literature Review: A Foundation for High-Quality Medical Education Research | Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 2016
  • Writing an effective literature review : Part I: Mapping the gap | Perspectives on Medical Education, 2018
  • Writing an effective literature review : Part II: Citation technique | Perspectives on Medical Education, 2018
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Writing in the Health Sciences: Research and Lit Reviews

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What Is a Literature Review?

In simple terms, a literature review investigates the available information on a certain topic. It may be only a knowledge survey with an intentional focus. However, it is often a well-organized examination of the existing research which evaluates each resource in a systematic way. Often a lit review will involve a series of inclusion/exclusion criteria or an assessment rubric which examines the research in-depth. Below are some interesting sources to consider.

how to write a review paper in medicine

The Writing Center's Literature Reviews - UNC-Chapel Hill's writing center explains some of the key criteria involved in doing a literature review.

Literature Review vs. Systematic Review - This recent article details the difference between a literature review and a systematic review. Though the two share similar attributes, key differences are identified here.

Literature Review Steps

1. Identify a research question. For example: "Does the use of warfarin in elderly patients recovering from myocardial infarction help prevent stroke?"

2. Consider which databases might provide information for your topic. Often PubMed or CINAHL will cover a wide spectrum of biomedical issues. However, other databases and grey literature sources may specialize in certain disciplines. Embase is generally comprehensive but also specializes in pharmacological interventions.

3. Select the major subjects or ideas from your question.  Focus in on the particular concepts involved in your research. Then brainstorm synonyms and related terminology for these topics.

4. Look for the  preferred indexing terms for each concept in your question. This is especially important with databases such as PubMed, CINAHL, or Scopus where headings within the MeSH database or under the Emtree umbrella are present.  For example, the above question's keywords such as " warfarin " or "myocardial infarction" can involve related terminology or subject headings such as "anti-coagulants" or "cardiovascular disease."

5. Build your search using boolean operators. Combine the synonyms in your database using boolean operators such as AND or OR. Sometimes it is necessary to research parts of a question rather than the whole. So you might link searches for things like the preventive effects of anti-coagulants with stroke or embolism, then AND these results with the therapy for patients with cardiovascular disease.

6. Filter and save your search results from the first database (do this for all databases). This may be a short list because of your topic's limitations, but it should be no longer than 15 articles for an initial search. Make sure your list is saved or archived and presents you with what's needed to access the full text.

7. Use the same process with the next databases on your list. But pay attention to how certain major headings may alter the terminology. "Stroke" may have a suggested term of "embolism" or even "cerebrovascular incident" depending on the database.

8. Read through the material for inclusion/exclusion . Based on your project's criteria and objective, consider which studies or reviews deserve to be included and which should be discarded. Make sure the information you have permits you to go forward. 

9. Write the literature review. Begin by summarizing why your research is important and explain why your approach will help fill gaps in current knowledge. Then incorporate how the information you've selected will help you to do this. You do not need to write about all of the included research you've chosen, only the most pe rtinent.

10. Select the most relevant literature for inclusion in the body of your report. Choose the articles and data sets that are most particularly relevant to your experimental approach. Consider how you might arrange these sources in the body of your draft. 

Library Books

how to write a review paper in medicine

Call #: WZ 345 G192h 2011

ISBN #: 9780763771867

This book details a practical, step-by-step method for conducting a literature review in the health sciences. Aiming to  synthesize the information while also analyzing it, the Matrix Indexing System enables users to establish a  structured process for tracking, organizing and integrating the knowledge within a collection.

Key Research Databases

PubMed -  The premier medical database for review articles in medicine, nursing, healthcare, other related biomedical disciplines. PubMed contains over 20 million citations and can be navigated through multiple database capabilities and searching strategies.

CINAHL Ultimate - Offers comprehensive coverage of health science literature. CINAHL is particularly useful for those researching the allied disciplines of nursing, medicine, and pharmaceutical sciences.

Scopus - Database with over 12 million abstracts and citations which include peer-reviewed titles from international and Open Access journals. Also includes interactive bibliometrics and researcher profiling.

Embase - Elsevier's fully interoperable database of both Medline and Emtree-indexed articles. Embase also specializes in pharmacologic interventions.

Cochrane - Selected evidence-based medicine resources from the Cochrane Collaboration that includes peer-reviewed systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials. Access this database through OVID with TTUHSC Libraries.

DARE - Literally the Datatase of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness, this collection of systematic reviews and other evidence-based research contains critical assessments from a wide variety of medical journals.

TRIP - This TRIP database is structured according to the level of evidence for its EBM content. It allows users to quickly and easily locate high-quality, accredited medical literature for clinical and research purposes.

Web of Science - Contains bibliographic articles and data from a wide variety of publications in the life sciences and other fields. Also, see this link for conducting a lit review exclusively within Web of Science.

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The literature review is the qualitative summary of evidence on a topic using informal or subjective methods to collect and interpret studies.The literature review can inform a particular research project or can result in a review article publication.

how to write a review paper in medicine

  • Aaron L. Writing a literature review article. Radiol Technol. 2008 Nov-Dec; 80(12): 185-6.
  • Gasparyan AY, Ayvazyan L, Blackmore H, Kitas GD. Writing a narrative biomedical review: considerations for authors, peer reviewers, and editors. Rheumatol Int. 2011 Nov; 31(11): 1409-17.
  • Matharu GS, Buckley CD. Performing a literature review: a necessary skill for any doctor. Student BMJ. 2012; 20:e404. Requires FREE site registration
  • Literature Reviews The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has created a succinct handout that explains what a literature review is and offer insights into the form and construction of a literature review in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.
  • Review Articles (Health Sciences) Guide Identifies the difference between a systematic review and a literature review. Connects to tools for research, writing, and publishing.

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How to Write a Peer Review

how to write a review paper in medicine

When you write a peer review for a manuscript, what should you include in your comments? What should you leave out? And how should the review be formatted?

This guide provides quick tips for writing and organizing your reviewer report.

Review Outline

Use an outline for your reviewer report so it’s easy for the editors and author to follow. This will also help you keep your comments organized.

Think about structuring your review like an inverted pyramid. Put the most important information at the top, followed by details and examples in the center, and any additional points at the very bottom.

how to write a review paper in medicine

Here’s how your outline might look:

1. Summary of the research and your overall impression

In your own words, summarize what the manuscript claims to report. This shows the editor how you interpreted the manuscript and will highlight any major differences in perspective between you and the other reviewers. Give an overview of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. Think about this as your “take-home” message for the editors. End this section with your recommended course of action.

2. Discussion of specific areas for improvement

It’s helpful to divide this section into two parts: one for major issues and one for minor issues. Within each section, you can talk about the biggest issues first or go systematically figure-by-figure or claim-by-claim. Number each item so that your points are easy to follow (this will also make it easier for the authors to respond to each point). Refer to specific lines, pages, sections, or figure and table numbers so the authors (and editors) know exactly what you’re talking about.

Major vs. minor issues

What’s the difference between a major and minor issue? Major issues should consist of the essential points the authors need to address before the manuscript can proceed. Make sure you focus on what is  fundamental for the current study . In other words, it’s not helpful to recommend additional work that would be considered the “next step” in the study. Minor issues are still important but typically will not affect the overall conclusions of the manuscript. Here are some examples of what would might go in the “minor” category:

  • Missing references (but depending on what is missing, this could also be a major issue)
  • Technical clarifications (e.g., the authors should clarify how a reagent works)
  • Data presentation (e.g., the authors should present p-values differently)
  • Typos, spelling, grammar, and phrasing issues

3. Any other points

Confidential comments for the editors.

Some journals have a space for reviewers to enter confidential comments about the manuscript. Use this space to mention concerns about the submission that you’d want the editors to consider before sharing your feedback with the authors, such as concerns about ethical guidelines or language quality. Any serious issues should be raised directly and immediately with the journal as well.

This section is also where you will disclose any potentially competing interests, and mention whether you’re willing to look at a revised version of the manuscript.

Do not use this space to critique the manuscript, since comments entered here will not be passed along to the authors.  If you’re not sure what should go in the confidential comments, read the reviewer instructions or check with the journal first before submitting your review. If you are reviewing for a journal that does not offer a space for confidential comments, consider writing to the editorial office directly with your concerns.

Get this outline in a template

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is hard. Giving effective feedback can be even more challenging. Remember that your ultimate goal is to discuss what the authors would need to do in order to qualify for publication. The point is not to nitpick every piece of the manuscript. Your focus should be on providing constructive and critical feedback that the authors can use to improve their study.

If you’ve ever had your own work reviewed, you already know that it’s not always easy to receive feedback. Follow the golden rule: Write the type of review you’d want to receive if you were the author. Even if you decide not to identify yourself in the review, you should write comments that you would be comfortable signing your name to.

In your comments, use phrases like “ the authors’ discussion of X” instead of “ your discussion of X .” This will depersonalize the feedback and keep the focus on the manuscript instead of the authors.

General guidelines for effective feedback

how to write a review paper in medicine

  • Justify your recommendation with concrete evidence and specific examples.
  • Be specific so the authors know what they need to do to improve.
  • Be thorough. This might be the only time you read the manuscript.
  • Be professional and respectful. The authors will be reading these comments too.
  • Remember to say what you liked about the manuscript!

how to write a review paper in medicine


  • Recommend additional experiments or  unnecessary elements that are out of scope for the study or for the journal criteria.
  • Tell the authors exactly how to revise their manuscript—you don’t need to do their work for them.
  • Use the review to promote your own research or hypotheses.
  • Focus on typos and grammar. If the manuscript needs significant editing for language and writing quality, just mention this in your comments.
  • Submit your review without proofreading it and checking everything one more time.

Before and After: Sample Reviewer Comments

Keeping in mind the guidelines above, how do you put your thoughts into words? Here are some sample “before” and “after” reviewer comments

✗ Before

“The authors appear to have no idea what they are talking about. I don’t think they have read any of the literature on this topic.”

✓ After

“The study fails to address how the findings relate to previous research in this area. The authors should rewrite their Introduction and Discussion to reference the related literature, especially recently published work such as Darwin et al.”

“The writing is so bad, it is practically unreadable. I could barely bring myself to finish it.”

“While the study appears to be sound, the language is unclear, making it difficult to follow. I advise the authors work with a writing coach or copyeditor to improve the flow and readability of the text.”

“It’s obvious that this type of experiment should have been included. I have no idea why the authors didn’t use it. This is a big mistake.”

“The authors are off to a good start, however, this study requires additional experiments, particularly [type of experiment]. Alternatively, the authors should include more information that clarifies and justifies their choice of methods.”

Suggested Language for Tricky Situations

You might find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure how to explain the problem or provide feedback in a constructive and respectful way. Here is some suggested language for common issues you might experience.

What you think : The manuscript is fatally flawed. What you could say: “The study does not appear to be sound” or “the authors have missed something crucial”.

What you think : You don’t completely understand the manuscript. What you could say : “The authors should clarify the following sections to avoid confusion…”

What you think : The technical details don’t make sense. What you could say : “The technical details should be expanded and clarified to ensure that readers understand exactly what the researchers studied.”

What you think: The writing is terrible. What you could say : “The authors should revise the language to improve readability.”

What you think : The authors have over-interpreted the findings. What you could say : “The authors aim to demonstrate [XYZ], however, the data does not fully support this conclusion. Specifically…”

What does a good review look like?

Check out the peer review examples at F1000 Research to see how other reviewers write up their reports and give constructive feedback to authors.

Time to Submit the Review!

Be sure you turn in your report on time. Need an extension? Tell the journal so that they know what to expect. If you need a lot of extra time, the journal might need to contact other reviewers or notify the author about the delay.

Tip: Building a relationship with an editor

You’ll be more likely to be asked to review again if you provide high-quality feedback and if you turn in the review on time. Especially if it’s your first review for a journal, it’s important to show that you are reliable. Prove yourself once and you’ll get asked to review again!

  • Getting started as a reviewer
  • Responding to an invitation
  • Reading a manuscript
  • Writing a peer review

The contents of the Peer Review Center are also available as a live, interactive training session, complete with slides, talking points, and activities. …

The contents of the Writing Center are also available as a live, interactive training session, complete with slides, talking points, and activities. …

There’s a lot to consider when deciding where to submit your work. Learn how to choose a journal that will help your study reach its audience, while reflecting your values as a researcher…

How to Write a Review Article

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(2005). How to Write a Review Article. In: The Clinician’s Guide to Medical Writing. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-27024-8_6

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  • Published: 14 May 2024

Protocol for a scoping review study on learning plan use in undergraduate medical education

  • Anna Romanova   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1118-1604 1 ,
  • Claire Touchie 1 ,
  • Sydney Ruller 2 ,
  • Victoria Cole 3 &
  • Susan Humphrey-Murto 4  

Systematic Reviews volume  13 , Article number:  131 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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The current paradigm of competency-based medical education and learner-centredness requires learners to take an active role in their training. However, deliberate and planned continual assessment and performance improvement is hindered by the fragmented nature of many medical training programs. Attempts to bridge this continuity gap between supervision and feedback through learner handover have been controversial. Learning plans are an alternate educational tool that helps trainees identify their learning needs and facilitate longitudinal assessment by providing supervisors with a roadmap of their goals. Informed by self-regulated learning theory, learning plans may be the answer to track trainees’ progress along their learning trajectory. The purpose of this study is to summarise the literature regarding learning plan use specifically in undergraduate medical education and explore the student’s role in all stages of learning plan development and implementation.

Following Arksey and O’Malley’s framework, a scoping review will be conducted to explore the use of learning plans in undergraduate medical education. Literature searches will be conducted using multiple databases by a librarian with expertise in scoping reviews. Through an iterative process, inclusion and exclusion criteria will be developed and a data extraction form refined. Data will be analysed using quantitative and qualitative content analyses.

By summarising the literature on learning plan use in undergraduate medical education, this study aims to better understand how to support self-regulated learning in undergraduate medical education. The results from this project will inform future scholarly work in competency-based medical education at the undergraduate level and have implications for improving feedback and supporting learners at all levels of competence.

Scoping review registration:

Open Science Framework osf.io/wvzbx.

Peer Review reports

Competency-based medical education (CBME) has transformed the approach to medical education to focus on demonstration of acquired competencies rather than time-based completion of rotations [ 1 ]. As a result, undergraduate and graduate medical training programs worldwide have adopted outcomes-based assessments in the form of entrustable professional activities (EPAs) comprised of competencies to be met [ 2 ]. These assessments are completed longitudinally by multiple different evaluators to generate an overall impression of a learner’s competency.

In CBME, trainees will progress along their learning trajectory at individual speeds and some may excel while others struggle to achieve the required knowledge, skills or attitudes. Therefore, deliberate and planned continual assessment and performance improvement is required. However, due to the fragmented nature of many medical training programs where learners rotate through different rotations and work with many supervisors, longitudinal observation is similarly fragmented. This makes it difficult to determine where trainees are on their learning trajectories and can affect the quality of feedback provided to them, which is a known major influencer of academic achievement [ 3 ]. As a result, struggling learners may not be identified until late in their training and the growth of high-performing learners may be stifled [ 4 , 5 , 6 ].

Bridging this continuity gap between supervision and feedback through some form of learner handover or forward feeding has been debated since the 1970s and continues to this day [ 5 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ]. The goal of learner handover is to improve trainee assessment and feedback by sharing their performance and learning needs between supervisors or across rotations. However, several concerns have been raised about this approach including that it could inappropriately bias subsequent assessments of the learner’s abilities [ 9 , 11 , 12 ]. A different approach to keeping track of trainees’ learning goals and progress along their learning trajectories is required. Learning plans (LPs) informed by self-regulated learning (SRL) theory may be the answer.

SRL has been defined as a cyclical process where learners actively control their thoughts, actions and motivation to achieve their goals [ 13 ]. Several models of SRL exist but all entail that the trainee is responsible for setting, planning, executing, monitoring and reflecting on their learning goals [ 13 ]. According to Zimmerman’s SRL model, this process occurs in three stages: forethought phase before an activity, performance phase during an activity and self-reflection phase after an activity [ 13 ]. Since each trainee leads their own learning process and has an individual trajectory towards competence, this theory relates well to the CBME paradigm which is grounded in learner-centredness [ 1 ]. However, we know that medical students and residents have difficulty identifying their own learning goals and therefore need guidance to effectively partake in SRL [ 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 ]. Motivation has also emerged as a key component of SRL, and numerous studies have explored factors that influence student engagement in learning [ 18 , 19 ]. In addition to meeting their basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence, perceived learning relevance through meaningful learning activities has been shown to increase trainee engagement in their learning [ 19 ].

LPs are a well-known tool across many educational fields including CBME that can provide trainees with meaningful learning activities since they help them direct their own learning goals in a guided fashion [ 20 ]. Also known as personal learning plans, learning contracts, personal action plans, personal development plans, and learning goals, LPs are documents that outline the learner’s roadmap to achieve their learning goals. They require the learner to self-identify what they need to learn and why, how they are going to do it, how they will know when they are finished, define the timeframe for goal achievement and assess the impact of their learning [ 20 ]. In so doing, LPs give more autonomy to the learner and facilitate objective and targeted feedback from supervisors. This approach has been described as “most congruent with the assumptions we make about adults as learners” [ 21 ].

LP use has been explored across various clinical settings and at all levels of medical education; however, most of the experience lies in postgraduate medical education [ 22 ]. Medical students are a unique learner population with learning needs that appear to be very well suited for using LPs for two main reasons. First, their education is often divided between classroom and clinical settings. During clinical training, students need to be more independent in setting learning goals to meet desired competencies as their education is no longer outlined for them in a detailed fashion by the medical school curriculum [ 23 ]. SRL in the workplace is also different than in the classroom due to additional complexities of clinical care that can impact students’ ability to self-regulate their learning [ 24 ]. Second, although most medical trainees have difficulty with goal setting, medical students in particular need more guidance compared to residents due to their relative lack of experience upon which they can build within the SRL framework [ 25 ]. LPs can therefore provide much-needed structure to their learning but should be guided by an experienced tutor to be effective [ 15 , 24 ].

LPs fit well within the learner-centred educational framework of CBME by helping trainees identify their learning needs and facilitating longitudinal assessment by providing supervisors with a roadmap of their goals. In so doing, they can address current issues with learner handover and identification as well as remediation of struggling learners. Moreover, they have the potential to help trainees develop lifelong skills with respect to continuing professional development after graduation which is required by many medical licensing bodies.

An initial search of the JBI Database, Cochrane Database, MEDLINE (PubMed) and Google Scholar conducted in July–August 2022 revealed a paucity of research on LP use in undergraduate medical education (UGME). A related systematic review by van Houten–Schat et al. [ 24 ] on SRL in the clinical setting identified three interventions used by medical students and residents in SRL—coaching, LPs and supportive tools. However, only a couple of the included studies looked specifically at medical students’ use of LPs, so this remains an area in need of more exploration. A scoping review would provide an excellent starting point to map the body of literature on this topic.

The objective of this scoping review will therefore be to explore LP use in UGME. In doing so, it will address a gap in knowledge and help determine additional areas for research.

This study will follow Arksey and O’Malley’s [ 26 ] five-step framework for scoping review methodology. It will not include the optional sixth step which entails stakeholder consultation as relevant stakeholders will be intentionally included in the research team (a member of UGME leadership, a medical student and a first-year resident).

Step 1—Identifying the research question

The overarching purpose of this study is to “explore the use of LPs in UGME”. More specifically we seek to achieve the following:

Summarise the literature regarding the use of LPs in UGME (including context, students targeted, frameworks used)

Explore the role of the student in all stages of the LP development and implementation

Determine existing research gaps

Step 2—Identifying relevant studies

An experienced health sciences librarian (VC) will conduct all searches and develop the initial search strategy. The preliminary search strategy is shown in Appendix A (see Additional file 2). Articles will be included if they meet the following criteria [ 27 ]:


Medical students enrolled at a medical school at the undergraduate level.

Any use of LPs by medical students. LPs are defined as a document, usually presented in a table format, that outlines the learner’s roadmap to achieve their learning goals [ 20 ].

Any stage of UGME in any geographic setting.

Types of evidence sources

We will search existing published and unpublished (grey) literature. This may include research studies, reviews, or expert opinion pieces.

Search strategy

With the assistance of an experienced librarian (VC), a pilot search will be conducted to inform the final search strategy. A search will be conducted in the following electronic databases: MEDLINE, Embase, Education Source, APA PsycInfo and Web of Science. The search terms will be developed in consultation with the research team and librarian. The search strategy will proceed according to the JBI Manual for Evidence Synthesis three-step search strategy for reviews [ 27 ]. First, we will conduct a limited search in two appropriate online databases and analyse text words from the title, abstracts and index terms of relevant papers. Next, we will conduct a second search using all identified key words in all databases. Third, we will review reference lists of all included studies to identify further relevant studies to include in the review. We will also contact the authors of relevant papers for further information if required. This will be an iterative process as the research team becomes more familiar with the literature and will be guided by the librarian. Any modifications to the search strategy as it evolves will be described in the scoping review report. As a measure of rigour, the search strategy will be peer-reviewed by another librarian using the PRESS checklist [ 28 ]. No language or date limits will be applied.

Step 3—Study selection

The screening process will consist of a two-step approach: screening titles/abstracts and, if they meet inclusion criteria, this will be followed by a full-text review. All screening will be done by two members of the research team and any disagreements will be resolved by an independent third member of the team. Based on preliminary inclusion criteria, the whole research team will first pilot the screening process by reviewing a random sample of 25 titles/abstracts. The search strategy, eligibility criteria and study objectives will be refined in an iterative process. We anticipate several meetings as the topic is not well described in the literature. A flowchart of the review process will be generated. Any modifications to the study selection process will be described in the scoping review report. The papers will be excluded if a full text is not available. The search results will be managed using Covidence software.

Step 4—Charting the data

A preliminary data extraction tool is shown in Appendix B (see Additional file 3 ). Data will be extracted into Excel and will include demographic information and specific details about the population, concept, context, study methods and outcomes as they relate to the scoping review objectives. The whole research team will pilot the data extraction tool on ten articles selected for full-text review. Through an iterative process, the final data extraction form will be refined. Subsequently, two members of the team will independently extract data from all articles included for full-text review using this tool. Charting disagreements will be resolved by the principal and senior investigators. Google Translate will be used for any included articles that are not in the English language.

Step 5—Collating, summarising and reporting the results

Quantitative and qualitative analyses will be used to summarise the results. Quantitative analysis will capture descriptive statistics with details about the population, concept, context, study methods and outcomes being examined in this scoping review. Qualitative content analysis will enable interpretation of text data through the systematic classification process of coding and identifying themes and patterns [ 29 ]. Several team meetings will be held to review potential themes to ensure an accurate representation of the data. The PRISMA Extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) will be used to guide the reporting of review findings [ 30 ]. Data will be presented in tables and/or diagrams as applicable. A descriptive summary will explain the presented results and how they relate to the scoping review objectives.

By summarising the literature on LP use in UGME, this study will contribute to a better understanding of how to support SRL amongst medical students. The results from this project will also inform future scholarly work in CBME at the undergraduate level and have implications for improving feedback as well as supporting learners at all levels of competence. In doing so, this study may have practical applications by informing learning plan incorporation into CBME-based curricula.

We do not anticipate any practical or operational issues at this time. We assembled a team with the necessary expertise and tools to complete this project.

Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analysed during this study will be included in the published scoping review article.


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Entrustable professional activity

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Not applicable.

This study will be supported through grants from the Department of Medicine at the Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa. The funding bodies had no role in the study design and will not have any role in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data or writing of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

The Ottawa Hospital – General Campus, 501 Smyth Rd, PO Box 209, Ottawa, ON, K1H 8L6, Canada

Anna Romanova & Claire Touchie

The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Ottawa, Canada

Sydney Ruller

The University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

Victoria Cole

The Ottawa Hospital – Riverside Campus, Ottawa, Canada

Susan Humphrey-Murto

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AR designed and drafted the protocol. CT and SH contributed to the refinement of the research question, study methods and editing of the manuscript. VC designed the initial search strategy. All authors reviewed the manuscript for final approval. The review guarantors are CT and SH. The corresponding author is AR.

Authors’ information

AR is a clinician teacher and Assistant Professor with the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Ottawa. She is also the Associate Director for the internal medicine clerkship rotation at the General campus of the Ottawa Hospital.

CT is a Professor of Medicine with the Divisions of General Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Ottawa. She is also a member of the UGME Competence Committee at the University of Ottawa and an advisor for the development of a new school of medicine at Toronto Metropolitan University.

SH is an Associate Professor with the Department of Medicine at the University of Ottawa and holds a Tier 2 Research Chair in Medical Education. She is also the Interim Director for the Research Support Unit within the Department of Innovation in Medical Education at the University of Ottawa.

CT and SH have extensive experience with medical education research and have numerous publications in this field.

SR is a Research Assistant with the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

VC is a Health Sciences Research Librarian at the University of Ottawa.

SR and VC have extensive experience in systematic and scoping reviews.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anna Romanova .

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Supplementary Information

Additional file 1. prisma-p 2015 checklist., 13643_2024_2553_moesm2_esm.docx.

Additional file 2: Appendix A. Preliminary search strategy [ 31 ].

Additional file 3: Appendix B. Preliminary data extraction tool.

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Romanova, A., Touchie, C., Ruller, S. et al. Protocol for a scoping review study on learning plan use in undergraduate medical education. Syst Rev 13 , 131 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-024-02553-w

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-024-02553-w

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how to write a review paper in medicine


Two decades of studies suggest health benefits associated with plant-based diets

But researchers caution against broad diet recommendations until remaining knowledge gaps are filled.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are generally associated with better status on various medical factors linked to cardiovascular health and cancer risk, as well as lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and death, according to a new review of 49 previously published papers. Angelo Capodici and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 15, 2024.

Prior studies have linked certain diets with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. A diet that is poor in plant products and rich in meat, refined grains, sugar, and salt is associated with higher risk of death. Reducing consumption of animal-based products in favor of plant-based products has been suggested to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, the overall benefits of such diets remain unclear.

To deepen understanding of the potential benefits of plant-based diets, Capodici and colleagues reviewed 48 papers published between January 2000 and June 2023 that themselves compiled evidence from multiple prior studies. Following an "umbrella" review approach, they extracted and analyzed data from the 48 papers on links between plant-based diets, cardiovascular health, and cancer risk.

Their analysis showed that, overall, vegetarian and vegan diets have a robust statistical association with better health status on a number of risk factors associated with cardiometabolic diseases, cancer, and mortality, such as blood pressure, management of blood sugar, and body mass index. Such diets are associated with reduced risk of ischemic heart disease, gastrointestinal and prostate cancer, and death from cardiovascular disease.

However, among pregnant women specifically, those with vegetarian diets faced no difference in their risk of gestational diabetes and hypertension compared to those on non-plant-based diets.

Overall, these findings suggest that plant-based diets are associated with significant health benefits. However, the researchers note, the statistical strength of this association is significantly limited by the many differences between past studies in terms of the specific diet regimens followed, patient demographics, study duration, and other factors. Moreover, some plant-based diets may introduce vitamin and mineral deficiencies for some people. Thus, the researchers caution against large-scale recommendation of plant-based diets until more research is completed.

The authors add: "Our study evaluates the different impacts of animal-free diets for cardiovascular health and cancer risk showing how a vegetarian diet can be beneficial to human health and be one of the effective preventive strategies for the two most impactful chronic diseases on human health in the 21st century."

  • Diet and Weight Loss
  • Diseases and Conditions
  • Colon Cancer
  • Endangered Plants
  • Veterinary Medicine
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Polyphenol antioxidant
  • Stomach cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • HPV vaccine
  • Breast cancer

Story Source:

Materials provided by PLOS . Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • Angelo Capodici, Gabriele Mocciaro, Davide Gori, Matthew J. Landry, Alice Masini, Francesco Sanmarchi, Matteo Fiore, Angela Andrea Coa, Gisele Castagna, Christopher D. Gardner, Federica Guaraldi. Cardiovascular health and cancer risk associated with plant based diets: An umbrella review . PLOS ONE , 2024; 19 (5): e0300711 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0300711

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