Iowa State University veterinary researcher pushes for more systematic reviews in animal medicine and agriculture

AMES, Iowa – An Iowa State University veterinary researcher is pushing for wider agricultural application of a research-based review process that she said could lead to better informed and more transparent decision making in animal medicine and food safety.

Annette O’Connor, a professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, started applying systematic reviews to veterinary questions around seven years ago.  A staple of decision making in human medicine for decades, systematic review is a way of synthesizing all the research on a given question.

“Systematic reviews have been around for 20 years in human health, and they can inform how decisions are made on using particular treatments, for example,” O’Connor said. “We’re working to translate systematic reviews to animal health and food safety.”

O’Connor said applying the same methodology to questions in agriculture and veterinary medicine would offer some important advantages, transparency foremost among them. Systematic reviews include detailed lists of the sources selected for the study, so anyone can follow the research, she said.

“The approach is more transparent because stakeholders are more aware of what previous research is informing the decisions,” she said. “Another common approach is simply asking for expert opinion, but we don’t know what sort of data the experts are drawing from.”

There are some differences between preparing systematic reviews for topics related to human health and topics related to animal health, O’Connor said. While human medicine is focused on patient outcomes, veterinary issues often have to account for the interests of consumers and owners in addition to the animals, she said.

O’Connor and Jan Sergeant of the University of Guelph in Canada led an effort to publish a series of articles this month in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health that acts as a how-to guide for other researchers who want to apply systematic reviews to agriculture, animal health and food safety. Chong Wang, an ISU assistant professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, also contributed to the series of articles.

In the seven years O’Connor has been assembling systematic reviews on agricultural topics, her work has addressed issues such as the health impact on communities near concentrated animal feeding operations and how to control salmonella on hog farms. She’s also done systematic reviews for the European Food Safety Authority, an agency of the European Union.