Design Meta-epidemiological study.
Data source Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2013-14).
Eligibility criteria for selecting studies Meta-analyses with both blinded and non-blinded trials on any topic.
Review methods Blinding status was retrieved from trial publications and authors, and results retrieved automatically from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Bayesian hierarchical models estimated the average ratio of odds ratios (ROR), and estimated the increases in heterogeneity between trials, for non-blinded trials (or of unclear status) versus blinded trials. Secondary analyses adjusted for adequacy of concealment of allocation, attrition, and trial size, and explored the association between outcome subjectivity (high, moderate, low) and average bias. An ROR lower than 1 indicated exaggerated effect estimates in trials without blinding.
Results The study included 142 meta-analyses (1153 trials). The ROR for lack of blinding of patients was 0.91 (95% credible interval 0.61 to 1.34) in 18 meta-analyses with patient reported outcomes, and 0.98 (0.69 to 1.39) in 14 meta-analyses with outcomes reported by blinded observers. The ROR for lack of blinding of healthcare providers was 1.01 (0.84 to 1.19) in 29 meta-analyses with healthcare provider decision outcomes (eg, readmissions), and 0.97 (0.64 to 1.45) in 13 meta-analyses with outcomes reported by blinded patients or observers. The ROR for lack of blinding of observers was 1.01 (0.86 to 1.18) in 46 meta-analyses with subjective observer reported outcomes, with no clear impact of degree of subjectivity. Information was insufficient to determine whether lack of blinding was associated with increased heterogeneity between trials. The ROR for trials not reported as double blind versus those that were double blind was 1.02 (0.90 to 1.13) in 74 meta-analyses.
Conclusion No evidence was found for an average difference in estimated treatment effect between trials with and without blinded patients, healthcare providers, or outcome assessors. These results could reflect that blinding is less important than often believed or meta-epidemiological study limitations, such as residual confounding or imprecision. At this stage, replication of this study is suggested and blinding should remain a methodological safeguard in trials.