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Keywords:

  • public health nursing;
  • systematic review;
  • methods;
  • evidence-based policy making

Background.  In 1999 the Scottish Office, United Kingdom, intimated that the Chief Nursing Officer would undertake a policy review of nurses’ contribution to improving the public's health. The importance of reviewing the scientific literature on the effectiveness of public health nursing was recognized as a crucial part of the policy review. A final report was expected within a 6-month period. The reason for the short time period was to fit the policy-making schedule. This paper discusses our literature review for this work.

Aims.  The aim was to conduct a review of the international scientific literature that gave the greatest coverage of the role and potential role of nurses in improving the public's health in relation to 14 major health topics. This paper describes the methods used, outlines the rationale underpinning the methods, discusses the problems encountered and offers solutions to some of these problems.

Methods.  The initial search for relevant scientific literature revealed 709 suitable primary papers. Reviewing this number was beyond the time limit set by the funding organization. Therefore, a decision was made to concentrate on the evidence contained in systematic reviews. Reviewing systematic reviews raises a number of methodological problems to which there are often no predetermined solutions, such as ensuring that important interventions are included, assessing the relevance and quality of the reviews, and grading the strength of the evidence.

Discussion.  Reviewing systematic reviews provides the scope to increase the number of topics that might be covered. However, it is possible that a number of interventions may be missed, particularly those that are not subject to review or those assessed using qualitative techniques. The definition of public health nursing used in the present study was also restrictive, and could be widened to include community interventions. Finally, assessing the quality of reviews and grading the evidence proved difficult and there is lack of consensus on how these tasks should be achieved. Nevertheless, the review presented policy makers with accessible information on a large number of relevant international studies.