Cover: AHRQ Series on Complex Intervention Systematic Reviews

AHRQ Series on Complex Intervention Systematic Reviews

Adapting Frameworks to Develop Protocols

Published in: Journal of Clinical Epidemiology [Epub July 2017]. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2017.06.013

Posted on Aug 25, 2017

by Mary Butler, Richard A. Epstein, Annette M. Totten, Evelyn P. Whitlock, Mohammed T. Ansari, Laura J. Damschroder, Ethan Balk, Eric Bass, Nancy D. Berkman, Susanne Hempel, et al.


Once a proposed topic has been identified for a systematic review and has undergone a question formulation stage, a protocol must be developed that specifies the scope and research questions in detail and outlines the methodology for conducting the systematic review.


Framework modifications are often needed to accommodate increased complexity. We describe and give examples of adaptations and alternatives to traditional analytic frameworks.


This article identifies and describes elements of frameworks and how they can be adapted to inform the protocol and conduct of systematic reviews of complex interventions. Modifications may be needed to adapt the population, intervention, comparators, and outcomes normally used in protocol development to successfully describe complex interventions; in some instances, alternative frameworks may be better suited. Possible approaches to analytic frameworks for complex interventions that illustrate causal and associative linkages are outlined, including time elements, which systematic reviews of complex interventions may need to address. The need for and specifics of the accommodations vary with details of a specific systematic review. This in turn helps determine whether traditional frameworks are sufficient, can be refined, or if alternate frameworks must be adopted.

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