BACKGROUND: Underreporting of harms in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) may lead to incomplete or erroneous assessments of the perceived benefit-to-harm profile of an intervention. To compare benefit with harm in clinical practice and future clinical studies, adverse event (AE) profiles including severity need to be understood. Even though patients report harm symptoms earlier and more frequently than clinicians, rheumatology RCTs currently do not provide a reporting framework from the patient's perspective regarding harms. Our objective for this meta-research project was to identify AEs in order to determine harm clusters and whether these could be self-reported by patients. Our other objective was to examine reported severity grading of the reported harms.
METHODS: We considered primary publications of RCTs eligible if they were published between 2008 and 2018 evaluating pharmacological interventions in patients with a rheumatic or musculoskeletal condition and if they were included in Cochrane reviews. We extracted data on harms such as reported AE terms together with severity (if described), and categorized AE- and severity-terms into overall groups. We deemed all AEs with felt components appropriate for patient self-reporting.
RESULTS: The literature search identified 187 possible Cochrane reviews, of which 94 were eligible for evaluation, comprising 1,297 articles on individual RCTs. Of these RCTs, 93 pharmacological trials met our inclusion criteria (including 31,023 patients; representing 20,844 accumulated patient years), which reported a total of 21,498 AEs, corresponding to 693 unique reported terms for AEs. We further sub-categorized these terms into 280 harm clusters (i.e., themes). AEs appropriate for patient self-reporting accounted for 58% of the AEs reported. Among the reported AEs, we identified medical terms for all of the 117 harm clusters appropriate for patient reporting and lay language terms for 86%. We intended to include severity grades of the reported AEs, but there was no evidence for systematic reporting of clinician- or patient-reported severity in the primary articles of the 93 trials. However, we identified 33 terms suggesting severity, but severity grading was discernible in only 9%, precluding a breakdown by severity in this systematic review.
CONCLUSIONS: Our results support the need for a standardized framework for patients' reporting of harms in rheumatology trials. Reporting of AEs with severity should be included in future reporting of harms, both from the patients' and investigators' perspectives.
REGISTRATION: PROSPERO: CRD42018108393.