From Hierarchy to Network: a richer view of evidence for evidence-based medicine

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) advocates the improvement of patient care through the use of current best research evidence in medical decision making. In practice, "best evidence" generally refers to where a study fits on a hierarchy of evidence, which places randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and other population-level research above laboratory research. Because population research is concerned primarily with average results obtained from large groups of people, ranking evidence on the basis of its place in the hierarchy is shortsighted and ultimately limits the ability of research results to inform the care of individual patients. The history and methodology of epidemiology reveals a close relationship between population-level and laboratory research; both types of research are necessary if we are to understand the causes of a disease. What EBM does not take into account in its hierarchy of evidence is that the same thing is true for research on the safety and efficacy of medical interventions. To maximize the information that clinical research can provide for clinical care, RCTs should be designed to elucidate within-group variability. This can only be done if the hierarchy of evidence is replaced by a network that takes into account the relationship between epidemiological and laboratory research.