Background. Statistical tests of heterogeneity are very popular in meta-analyses, as heterogeneity might indicate subgroup effects. Lack of demonstrable statistical heterogeneity, however, might obscure clinical heterogeneity, meaning clinically relevant subgroup effects. Methods. A qualitative, visual method to explore the potential for subgroup effects was provided by a modification of the forest plot, i.e., adding a vertical axis indicating the proportion of a subgroup variable in the individual trials. Such a plot was used to assess the potential for clinically relevant subgroup effects and was illustrated by a clinical example on the effects of antibiotics in children with acute otitis media. Results. Statistical tests did not indicate heterogeneity in the meta-analysis on the effects of amoxicillin on acute otitis media (Q = 3.29, p = 0.51; I2 = 0%; T2 = 0). Nevertheless, in a modified forest plot, in which the individual trials were ordered by the proportion of children with bilateral otitis, a clear relation between bilaterality and treatment effects was observed (which was also found in an individual patient data meta-analysis of the included trials: p-value for interaction 0.021). Conclusions. A modification of the forest plot, by including an additional (vertical) axis indicating the proportion of a certain subgroup variable, is a qualitative, visual, and easy-to-interpret method to explore potential subgroup effects in studies included in meta-analyses,
B M C Medical Research Methodology
Article number 43
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Groenwold, R.H.H, Rovers, M.M, Lubsen, J, & van der Heijden, G.J.M.G. (2010). Subgroup effects despite homogeneous heterogeneity test results. B M C Medical Research Methodology, 10. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-10-43