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Cochrane Collaboration logo – it’s a forest plot!

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that yours truly got the chance to attend the annual Cochrane Colloquium in Edinburgh in September this year, thanks to a travel stipend from SPM, a #PatientsIncluded bursary from Cochrane UK, the hosts of the 2018 Colloquium, and a stipend from the NHS for the #BeyondTheRoom project to help cover the event for the global audience.

And I’m sure there are a good number of you who are still thinking, “That’s great, but what the heck is Cochrane? And how did they get to be the ones running the ‘Hogwarts Sorting Hat’ of global medical evidence?” Forgive me, but I’m a comedy writer, and that breaks through from time to time, no matter how hard I try to stifle it. Anyway, Cochrane is named for a Scottish doctor, Archibald Leman “Archie” Cochrane, who wrote “Effectiveness and Efficiency: Random Reflections on Health Services” (the link will let you download the whole book in PDF) in 1972.

Archie Cochrane advocated for randomized clinical trials (RCTs) for, well, everything – treatments, practice methods, research protocols, an “all of the things” approach, on a loop – which was not how medicine was being practiced under the prevailing “doctor knows best” practice model in place across the globe. “The art of medicine to preserve autonomy, the science of medicine to preserve authority” rules pointed out by many people seeking to make medical science more science than “because it’s how I do things” – those rules have been snarked at by both your correspondent, and Dr. Al Mulley at Dartmouth, among a host of others.

Archie Cochrane influenced the thinking, and practice, of many other clinicians with his thought leadership on practice variation, practice standardization, and the use of RCTs to fine tune medical science. One of the people he influenced was Iain Chalmers, who, in 1993, founded the Cochrane Collaboration in Archie Cochrane’s memory. Here’s a graf from “A brief history of Cochrane”:

“The Cochrane Collaboration was founded in 1993, a year after the establishment of the UK Cochrane Centre in Oxford, UK. The UK Cochrane Centre arose from a vision to extend a ground-breaking programme of work by Iain Chalmers and colleagues in the area of pregnancy and childbirth to the rest of health care. Inspired by Archie Cochrane’s claim that “It is surely a great criticism of our profession that we have not organised a critical summary, by specialty or subspecialty, adapted periodically, of all relevant randomised controlled trials” (Cochrane 1979), Chalmers and colleagues developed the Oxford Database of Perinatal Trials and a series of systematic reviews published in Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth (Chalmers 1989). The database became a regularly updated electronic publication in 1989, developed into Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Database in early 1993, and formed the basis of the broader Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR), launched in 1995. Work on a handbook to support authors of Cochrane Reviews had begun in 1993, and the first version was published in May 1994. Over its first 20 years, Cochrane has grown from an initial group of 77 people from nine countries who met at the first Cochrane Colloquium in Oxford in 1993 to over 31,000 contributors from more than 120 countries in 2015, making it the largest organization involved in this kind of work (Allen 2006; Allen 2007; Allen 2011). Cochrane is now an internationally renowned initiative (Clarke 2005; Green 2005).”

Since 1993 – only 25 years – Cochrane has spread across the globe, with centers on every populated continent:

Cochrane UK (and their Evidently Cochrane blog, which is terrific)

Cochrane Canada

Cochrane Nigeria

Cochrane Australia (also supporting emerging networks in Indonesia and the Philippines)

Cochrane Japan

Cochrane Chile (hosting the Cochrane Colloquium global meeting in 2019 in Santiago)

The above list is just a sampling – and you may notice that there’s somebody missing. Yes, I’m looking at you, USA. The US did have a Cochrane Center home based at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, but that closed in February 2018. For now, the best we’ve got is the Cochrane US West Center at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon. But that’s a story for another blog post.

On the e-patient front, Cochrane has some terrific stuff on tap. They have a vibrant global consumer presence, via the Cochrane Consumer Network, and a ground-breaking new global citizen science project, Cochrane Crowd, where anyone can take part in the research synthesis process. The Crowd platform provides all the training anyone might need to be able to participate in assessing RCTs and studies, after completing it you’ll be ready to go, sifting through studies and trials to separate the good science from the questionable and not-reproducible stuff.

Cochrane popped up on my radar screen sometime in the last decade or so, during the time that I was scrambling to get on top of managing my parents’ care in the last few years of their lives. It came in handy as I was sifting through my decision tree during cancer treatment ten years ago, and as I’ve become more and more interested in killing off quackery and over-, under-, and mis-treatment in medicine in my work as a citizen science activist and ground-level health policy wonk. If you’re interested in the same things, join the party. We’re all in this together, and Cochrane can help us move the needle toward what I call “Goldilocks medicine” – the right treatment for the right patient, at the right time – at a faster rate.

Editor’s update: the final post in the series is Whither Cochrane, for e-patients and everyone else?


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