How to conduct a systematic or evidence- based literature review

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Health (Nursing, Medicine, Allied Health): Literature Reviews

Guide to locating health evidence.

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Resources for finding and conducting systematic reviews

  • What is a “systematic review” and a “meta-analysis”?
  • Finding systematic reviews
  • Conducting and reporting systematic reviews
  • Useful resources for systematic reviews
  • Other types of reviews
  • Covidence
  • Saving Search Histories

"A systematic review is a literature review focused on a research question that tries to identify, appraise, select, and synthesize all high-quality research evidence relevant to that question.

An understanding of systematic reviews and how to implement them in practice is becoming mandatory for all professionals involved in the delivery of health care. However, systematic reviews are not limited to medicine and health fields and are quite common in other sciences where data are collected, published in the literature, and an assessment of methodological quality for a precisely defined subject would be helpful. Other fields where systematic reviews are used include psychology, nursing, public health, occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, educational research, sociology, and business and management.

In a literature review, we assess the relevance of the published research to the research question. A systematic review takes that a stage further. It employs defined criteria to assess the actual quality of the research itself. The review then goes on to synthesize the findings of the research in order to generate an account of the present state of knowledge about the question. That account is based on the knowledge gained from the research which is considered to be of adequate quality. A systematic review aims to provide an exhaustive summary of current literature relevant to a research question….

Systematic reviews often, but not always, use statistical techniques called meta-analysis to combine results of the eligible studies, or at least use scoring of the levels of evidence depending on the methodology used. A systematic review uses an objective and transparent approach for research synthesis, with the aim of minimizing bias. While many systematic reviews are based on an explicit quantitative meta-analysis of available data, there are also qualitative reviews which adhere to the standards for gathering, analyzing and reporting evidence." 

Byrne, D. (2016). What is a systematic review? Project Planner. 10.4135/9781526408563. Retrieved from  Sage Research Methods Online .

For a concise summary of the characteristics that distinguish a systematic review from a "standard" literature review, see: 

​Rethlefsen, M. L. (2013, May 1). I want to do a systematic review [Blog post]. Retrieved from

  • Cochrane Library (includes: CDSR, DARE, CCTR, HTA, NHSEED, CRG’s)

    The Cochrane Library provides access to systematic reviews in addition to other sources of reliable information, from other systematic review abstracts, technology assessments, economic evaluations and individual clinical trials. Includes Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews(CDSR), Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), Cochrane Methodology Register (CMR), NHS Economic Evaluation Database (NHSEED), and Health Technology Assessment Database (HTA).

  • Campbell Collaboration Library of Systematic Reviews

    • Open access
    The Campbell Collaboration promotes positive social and economic change through the production and use of systematic reviews and other evidence synthesis for evidence-based policy and practice. It provides an online, peer-reviewed monograph series of systematic reviews, which follow structured guidelines and standards for summarizing the international research evidence on the effects of interventions in crime and justice, education, international development, and social welfare.

  • Joanna Briggs Institute EBP Database

    JBI EBP database gives comprehensive coverage of a wide range of medical, nursing, and health science specialties and includes a unique suite of information that’s been analyzed, appraised, and prepared by expert reviewers at JBI so you can integrate the world’s best evidence into your practice:


    PROSPERO is an international database of prospectively registered systematic reviews in health and social care, welfare, public health, education, crime, justice, and international development, where there is a health related outcome. It aims to provide a comprehensive listing of systematic reviews, registered at inception, to help avoid duplication and reduce opportunity for reporting bias by enabling comparison completed review with what was planned in the protocol.

Additionally, it is possible to limit a set of results to just systematic reviews and/or meta-analyses in the subject-specific bibliographic databases listed below. Often this limit is found as an option in the facet for "methodology" or "article/publication type."

  • PsycNET (with PsycINFO)

    APA PsycNET is an integrated collection of databases from the American Psychological Association (APA), including the following: PsycINFO, PsycBOOKS, PsycTESTS, PsycTHERAPY, PsycARTICLES, PsycCRITIQUES, and PsycEXTRA.

    PsycINFO, the most popular database in PsycNET, is a bibliographic index covering core literature in the psychological and behavioral sciences and their related disciplines. PsycBOOKS includes online versions of the APA Handbooks in Psychology Series, as well as other ebooks and online encyclopedias published by APA. PsycTESTS is a source of structured information about psychological tests and measures as well as a repository for the full text of select instruments. PsycTHERAPY provides access to streaming psychotherapy demonstration videos.

    Altogether, PsycNET provides information about and access to journal articles, books & ebooks, dissertations, conference presentations, tests & measures, videos, gray literature, and many other other publication types in the psychological, social, behavioral, and health sciences.

    To search only a specific database (e.g., PsycINFO) within the PsycNET interface, use the “Select Databases” features at the top of the PsycNET landing page and check (or uncheck) the database(s) that apply. To access PsycTHERAPY, click on its hyperlinked title.

  • PsycINFO via Ovid

    PsycINFO via Ovid indexes core academic and professional literature in the psychological and behavioral sciences and their related disciplines. Coverage is from 1806 to the present. **Note that the database PsycINFO is also searchable on APA PsycNET platform.

  • Medline via PubMed

    • This resource has special access instructions This link opens in a new window
    PubMed comprises over 27 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. PubMed citations and abstracts include the fields of biomedicine and health, covering portions of the life sciences, behavioral sciences, chemical sciences, and bioengineering. PubMed also provides access to additional relevant web sites and links to the other NCBI molecular biology resources.

  • Medline via Ovid

    The MEDLINE database is widely recognized as the premier source for bibliographic and abstract coverage of biomedical literature. MEDLINE encompasses information from Index Medicus, Index to Dental Literature, and International Nursing, as well as other sources of coverage in the areas of allied health, biological and physical sciences, humanities and information science as they relate to medicine and health care, communication disorders, population biology, and reproductive biology.

  • CINAHL Plus with Full Text

    CINAHL indexes over 3,800 journals from the fields of nursing and allied health, with indexing for selected journals back to 1937. Topics covered are related to nursing, physical therapy, health education, social service/healthcare, occupational therapy, and related disciplines. CINAHL also provides access to healthcare books, nursing dissertations, selected conference proceedings, standards of professional practice, educational software and audiovisual materials in nursing. Dates of coverage: 1937 to present.

  • EMBASE: Excerpta Medica

    EMBASE is a biomedical and pharmaceutical database indexing over 3,500 international journals in the following fields: drug research, pharmacology, pharmaceutics, toxicology, clinical and experimental human medicine, health policy and management, public health, occupational health, environmental health, drug dependence and abuse, psychiatry, forensic medicine, and biomedical engineering/instrumentation. There is selective coverage for nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, psychology, and alternative medicine. Dates of coverage: 1980 to present.


  • Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA)

    PRISMA is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. PRISMA focuses on the reporting of reviews evaluating randomized trials, but can also be used as a basis for reporting systematic reviews of other types of research, particularly evaluations of interventions. This website includes the PRISMA statement (which outlines guidelines for reporting), the PRISMA flow diagram, and the PRISMA checklist, as well as a link to a document containing the PRISMA statement’s explanation and elaboration.

  • NIH Library’s Guide to Systematic Reviews

    Produced and maintained by Nancy Terry at the NIH Library, this online guide contains information sources, websites, and articles that can help you to conduct a systematic review. For direction on how best to select information sources/databases and develop search strategies, see the tab for “The Literature Search – Databases and Gray Literature.:

  • Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions

    This handbook provides guidance to authors for the preparation of Cochrane Intervention reviews, including Cochrane Overviews of reviews. For advisement on how best to select information sources/databases and develop search strategies, see Part 2, Chapter 6: Searching for studies.

  • Cochrane Training

    On this site, you will find interactive learning resources and pathways as well as links to webinars, courses, and handbooks produced by the Cochrane Collaboration that relate to systematic review methods. Note that select resources on this site are limited to those with an existing Cochrane account while others are publicly available.

  • Systematic Reviews: CRD’s Guidance for Undertaking Reviews in Health Care

    Published by the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York, this guide outlines the methods and steps necessary to conduct a systematic review. It also addresses issues associated with reviews in specific areas, such as clinical tests, public health interventions, harm/adverse effects, economic evaluations, and how and why interventions work.

  • Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews

    This ebook, produced by the Institute of Medicine (2011), contains chapters on the following topics: Standards for initiating a systematic review — Standards for finding and assessing individual studies — Standards for synthesizing the body of evidence — Standards for reporting systematic reviews — Improving the quality of systematic reviews

  • Methods for the Thematic Synthesis of Qualitative Research in Systematic Reviews

    Article abstract: There is a growing recognition of the value of synthesising qualitative research in the evidence base in order to facilitate effective and appropriate health care. In response to this, methods for undertaking these syntheses are currently being developed. Thematic analysis is a method that is often used to analyse data in primary qualitative research. This paper reports on the use of this type of analysis in systematic reviews to bring together and integrate the findings of multiple qualitative studies.

  • PRESS Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies

    The PRESS Guideline provides a set of recommendations concerning the information that should be used by librarians and other information specialists when they are asked to evaluate electronic search strategies developed for systematic review (SR) and health technology assessment (HTA) reports.


  • Campbell Collaboration: The Introductory Methods

    These training videos provide an introduction to the purpose of systematic reviews and their basic elements, including: Problem Formulation, Literature Searching, Coding (data extraction), Effect Size Calculation, and Introduction to Basic Meta-Analysis. They were recorded during the August 2011 Campbell Colloquium at George Mason University (Washington, D.C.), and the May 2013 Campbell Colloquium at Loyola University Chicago (Chicago, IL).

  • Campbell Methods Series

    The Campbell Library Methods Series supports the production of high quality systematic reviews by providing a policy and guidance on methods to authors and editors, as well as space for discussion of new and emerging methods. The series comprises three sub-series: Methods Policy Notes, Methods Guides, and Methods Discussion Papers.

  • Searching for Studies: A Guide to Information Retrieval for Campbell Systematic Reviews

    This guide aims to provide general guidance to those conducting a systematic review and to establish minimum standards for key information retrieval tasks. Although the guide speaks specifically to individuals planning to conduct a Campbell review, the policies, procedures, and guidelines are applicable to anyone interested in implementing information retrieval methods that maximize coverage and minimize bias during the information retrieval process.

  • Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis

    This ebook, written by Littell, Corcoran, and Pillai (2008) and published by Oxford University Press, contains chapters on the following topics: Formulating a topic and developing a protocol — Locating and screening studies — Data extraction and study quality assessment — Effect size metrics and pooling methods — Assessing bias and variations in effects

  • Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide

    This ebook, written by Petticrew and Roberts (2006), contains chapters on the following topics: Why do we need systematic reviews? — Starting the review : refining the question and defining the boundaries — What sorts of studies do I include in the review? : deciding on the review’s inclusion/exclusion criteria — How to find the studies : the literature search — How to appraise the studies : an introduction to assessing study quality — Synthesizing the evidence — Exploring heterogeneity and publication bias — Disseminating the review — Systematic reviews : urban myths and fairy tales

  • Finding and Evaluating Evidence: Systematic Reviews and Evidence-Based Practice

    Part of the Pocket Guide to Social Work Research Method series, this ebook, written by Bronson and Davis (2012) and published by Oxford University Press, contains chapters on the following topics: Systematic reviews, evidence-based practice, and social work — Asking the right questions, preparing a protocol, and finding the relevant research — Critically appraising the quality and credibility of quantitative research for systematic reviews — The art and science of managing and summarizing the available research — Systematic reviews of qualitative research — Assessing the quality of systematic reviews

  • PRISMA Flow Diagram Generator

    A PRISMA flow diagram is a graphical representation of the flow of citations reviewed in the course of a systematic review. This site offers a form that uses the Open Source dot program (part of graphviz) to generate a flow diagram tailored to the data input.

  • SAGE Research Methods Online

    • Video instructions available This link opens in a new window
    SAGE Research Methods Online aggregates materials from SAGE’s journal and reference content, including dictionaries, datasets, case studies, and books. Researchers can explore methods with the Methods Map tool and gather context (including sample data sets) to help design research projects, understand particular methods or identify a new method, conduct research, and write up findings.

  • PubMed Help

    This page offers tips, tricks, and tutorials for searching PubMed, which is a free resource developed and maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).

  • Medline via Ovid Database Guide

    This guide describes how Medline information is structured in the Ovid interface. Jump down to Advanced Searching for tips on using Ovid syntax and limits to optimize a search strategy.

  • PsycINFO via Ovid Database Guide

    This guide describes how PsycINFO information is structured in the Ovid interface. Jump down to Advanced Searching for tips on using Ovid syntax and limits to optimize a search strategy.

  • Advanced Searching with CINAHL Subject Headings

    This guides explians what subject headings and subheadings are and demonstrates how to use CINAHL headings in command-line searching to build one-line simple or complex searches.


  • A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies

    Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91-108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x
    More information
    ABSTRACT: The expansion of evidence-based practice across sectors has lead to an increasing variety of review types. However, the diversity of terminology used means that the full potential of these review types may be lost amongst a confusion of indistinct and misapplied terms. The objective of this study is to provide descriptive insight into the most common types of reviews, with illustrative examples from health and health information domains.

  • Clarifying differences between review designs and methods

    Gough, D., Thomas, J., & Oliver, S. (2012). Clarifying differences between review designs and methods. Systematic Reviews, 1, 28. doi:10.1186/2046-4053-1-28
    More information
    ABSTRACT: This paper argues that the current proliferation of types of systematic reviews creates challenges for the terminology for describing such reviews….It is therefore proposed that the most useful strategy for the field is to develop terminology for the main dimensions of variation.

  • Are we talking the same paradigm? Considering methodological choices in health education systematic review

    Gordon, M. (2016). Are we talking the same paradigm? Considering methodological choices in health education systematic review. Medical Teacher, 38(7), 746-750. doi:10.3109/0142159X.2016.1147536
    More information
    ABSTRACT: Key items discussed are the positivist synthesis methods meta-analysis and content analysis to address questions in the form of “whether and what” education is effective. These can be juxtaposed with the constructivist aligned thematic analysis and meta-ethnography to address questions in the form of “why.” The concept of the realist review is also considered. It is proposed that authors of such work should describe their research alignment and the link between question, alignment and evidence synthesis method selected.

  • What synthesis methodology should I use? A review and analysis of approaches to research synthesis

    Schick-Makaroff, K., MacDonald, M., Plummer, M., Burgess, J., & Neander, W. (2016). What synthesis methodology should I use? A review and analysis of approaches to research synthesis. AIMS Public Health, 3(1), 172-215. doi:10.3934/publichealth.2016.1.172
    More information
    ABSTRACT: Our purpose is to present a comprehensive overview and assessment of the main approaches to research synthesis. We use “research synthesis” as a broad overarching term to describe various approaches to combining, integrating, and synthesizing research findings.


  • The integrative review: Updated methodology

    Whittemore, R., & Knafl, K. (2005). The integrative review: Updated methodology. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 52(5), 546–553. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2005.03621.x
    More information
    ABSTRACT: The aim of this paper is to distinguish the integrative review method from other review methods and to propose methodological strategies specific to the integrative review method to enhance the rigour of the process….An integrative review is a specific review method that summarizes past empirical or theoretical literature to provide a more comprehensive understanding of a particular phenomenon or healthcare problem….Well-done integrative reviews present the state of the science, contribute to theory development, and have direct applicability to practice and policy.


  • Scoping studies: Towards a methodological framework

    Arksey, H., & O’Malley, L. (2005). Scoping studies: Towards a methodological framework. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 8(1), 19-32. doi:10.1080/1364557032000119616
    More information
    ABSTRACT: We distinguish between different types of scoping studies and indicate where these stand in relation to full systematic reviews. We outline a framework for conducting a scoping study based on our recent experiences of reviewing the literature on services for carers for people with mental health problems.

  • Scoping studies: Advancing the methodology

    Levac, D., Colquhoun, H., & O’Brien, K. K. (2010). Scoping studies: Advancing the methodology. Implementation Science, 5(1), 69. doi:10.1186/1748-5908-5-69
    More information
    ABSTRACT: We build upon our experiences conducting three scoping studies using the Arksey and O’Malley methodology to propose recommendations that clarify and enhance each stage of the framework.

  • Methodology for JBI scoping reviews

    Peters, M. D. J., Godfrey, C. M., McInerney, P., Baldini Soares, C., Khalil, H., & Parker, D. (2015). The Joanna Briggs Institute reviewers’ manual: Methodology for JBI scoping reviews [PDF]. Retrieved from The Joanna Briggs Institute website:
    More information
    ABSTRACT: Unlike other reviews that address relatively precise questions, such as a systematic review of the effectiveness of a particular intervention based on a precise set of outcomes, scoping reviews can be used to map the key concepts underpinning a research area as well as to clarify working definitions, and/or the conceptual boundaries of a topic. A scoping review may focus on one of these aims or all of them as a set.


  • Evidence summaries: The evolution of a rapid review approach

    Khangura, S., Konnyu, K., Cushman, R., Grimshaw, J., & Moher, D. (2012). Evidence summaries: The evolution of a rapid review approach. Systematic Reviews, 1(1), 10. doi:10.1186/2046-4053-1-10
    More information
    ABSTRACT: Rapid reviews have emerged as a streamlined approach to synthesizing evidence – typically for informing emergent decisions faced by decision makers in health care settings. Although there is growing use of rapid review “methods,” and proliferation of rapid review products, there is a dearth of published literature on rapid review methodology. This paper outlines our experience with rapidly producing, publishing and disseminating evidence summaries in the context of our Knowledge to Action (KTA) research program.

  • What is a rapid review? A methodological exploration of rapid reviews in Health Technology Assessments

    Harker, J., & Kleijnen, J. (2012). What is a rapid review? A methodological exploration of rapid reviews in Health Technology Assessments. International Journal of Evidence‐Based Healthcare, 10(4), 397-410. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1609.2012.00290.x
    More information
    ABSTRACT: In recent years, there has been an emergence of “rapid reviews” within Health Technology Assessments; however, there is no known published guidance or agreed methodology within recognised systematic review or Health Technology Assessment guidelines. In order to answer the research question “What is a rapid review and is methodology consistent in rapid reviews of Health Technology Assessments?”, a study was undertaken in a sample of rapid review Health Technology Assessments from the Health Technology Assessment database within the Cochrane Library and other specialised Health Technology Assessment databases to investigate similarities and/or differences in rapid review methodology utilised.

  • Rapid Review Guidebook

    Dobbins, M. (2017). Rapid review guidebook. Hamilton, ON: National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools.

  • NCCMT Summary and Tool for Dobbins’ Rapid Review Guidebook

    National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools. (2017). Rapid review guidebook. Hamilton, ON: McMaster University. Retrieved from

  • Covidence

    • Video instructions available This link opens in a new window
    Covidence works with reference managers like EndNote, Zotero, Refworks, and Mendeley to screen results for the purposes of systematic reviews and other research projects.

    Request an individual Covidence account using your NYU email address. Accept the email invitation and Sign In; (do NOT click the “free trial” account; do NOT “sign in with Cochrane” unless you are a Cochrane author).


  • Covidence Webinar Part 1: Sign in and importing references
  • Covidence Webinar Part 2: Title and abstract – screening and settings
  • Covidence Webinar Part 3: Full text screening
  • Covidence Webinar Part 4: Data extraction
  • Covidence Webinar Part 5: Data export
  • Covidence Webinar (Complete 1hr)

  • Saving Search Histories in CINAHLPlus, PubMed, PsycINFO, Proquest

Loading …

Steps, Systematic Review



Notes and Links


1. Define a Focused Question (consider Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome)

  • evaluate review type appropriate for question
  • for a Systematic Review, assemble a team and write a protocol

PICO Question Help

Define Problem/Patient or Population 
(do not limit to comparison and outcome, not yet!)

What are the effects of the Pilates method for patients with low back pain?

2. Scope the literature for eligible studies

Eligible studies may come from:

  • Background sources (books, POC tools)
  • Article Databases
  • Trial Registries
  • Grey Lit
  • Cited reference searching
  • Reference Lists

Translate terms to controlled vocabulary of the database, when possible; use keyword searching when necessary.

Combine with AND
Expand synonyms with OR

Download a Boolean worksheet

3. Refine Searchexpand  strategy with synonyms harvested from

  • database thesauri
  • reference lists
  • relevant studies

Save final, reproducible strategies for each database 

Save strategies in:

  • shared Google sheet
  • PubMed “My NCBI” 
  • Article database may allow saving a strategy in a personal account


Click image to view the beginning of a reproducible search strategy

4. Limit search results, based on defined inclusion/exclusion criteria

  Filtering Help 

  • database categorical limits, as well as manual filtering of results is often needed

Limit to Article type, e.g., :  "randomized controlled trial" OR multicenter study
Limit by publication years, age groups, language, etc.

5. Download citations into citation management tool

Citation Managers:

  • Endnote
  • Zotero
  • Refworks
  • Mendeley
  • Create group for each database total (needed for flow chart)
  • Create combined  set for total
  • De-dupe 
    "combined" set

Click image to view Zotero collections.


6. Abstract, Analyze, Synthesize

  • Migrate citations to data collection/extraction tool
  • Screen Title/Abstracts for relevance, inclusion/exclusion
  • Screen and appraise full text for relevance, methods, 
  • Resolve disagreements by consensus
  • Covidence
  • Critical Appraisal Tools

Add team members to Covidence

​Manage settings and rules for screening and extraction

7. Create flow diagram 

  • PRISMA flow sheet generator
  • Covidence PRISMA tool

Transfer total numbers of citations from each stage of the review into the flow diagram.

(Navarra et al., 2017)

Click image to view sample flow sheet

8. Report Results

Reporting Guidelines

Organize findings in a review matrix:

Sample health sciences review matrix
Click image to view sample review matrix. 
Download template as an excel file.



*Modified from: Cook, D. A., & West, C. P. (2012). Conducting systematic reviews in medical education: a stepwise approach.  Medical Education, 46(10), 943–952.

**Navarra, A.-M. D., Gwadz, M. V., Whittemore, R., Bakken, S. R., Cleland, C. M., Burleson, W., … Melkus, G. D. (2017). Health Technology-Enabled Interventions for Adherence Support and Retention in Care Among US HIV-Infected Adolescents and Young Adults: An Integrative Review. AIDS and Behavior

Example, Systematic Review:
Yamato TP, Maher CG, Saragiotto BT, Hancock MJ, Ostelo RW, Cabral CM, … Costa LO. (2015). Pilates for low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (7), N.PAG-N.PAG. Available at:


Covidence is a web based tool that improves healthcare evidence synthesis by improving the efficiency and experience of creating and maintaining Systematic Reviews.

  • Covidence

    • This link opens in a new window
    Covidence works with reference managers like EndNote, Zotero, Refworks, and Mendeley to screen results for the purposes of systematic reviews and other research projects.

    Request an individual Covidence account using your NYU email address. Accept the email invitation and Sign In; (do NOT click the “free trial” account; do NOT “sign in with Cochrane” unless you are a Cochrane author).

What are Systematic Reviews?

Access the Cochrane Library via NYU at:

PRISMA Statement Website

PRISMA stands for Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. It is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

  • Link to the PRISMA web site to access the PRISMA STATEMENT, a 27-item checklist and a four-phase flow diagram to help authors improve the reporting of systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • Link to the PRISMA flow diagram generator

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