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      Experiences of loneliness: a study protocol for a systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative literature


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          Loneliness is a highly prevalent, harmful, and aversive experience which is fundamentally subjective: social isolation alone cannot account for loneliness, and people can experience loneliness even with ample social connections. A number of studies have qualitatively explored experiences of loneliness; however, the research lacks a comprehensive overview of these experiences. We present a protocol for a study that will, for the first time, systematically review and synthesise the qualitative literature on experiences of loneliness in people of all ages from the general, non-clinical population. The aim is to offer a fine-grained look at experiences of loneliness across the lifespan.


          We will search multiple electronic databases from their inception onwards: PsycINFO, MEDLINE, Scopus, Child Development & Adolescent Studies, Sociological Abstracts, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, CINAHL, and the Education Resource Information Center. Sources of grey literature will also be searched. We will include empirical studies published in English including any qualitative study design (e.g. interview, focus group). Studies should focus on individuals from non-clinical populations of any age who describe experiences of loneliness. All citations, abstracts, and full-text articles will be screened by one author with a second author ensuring consistency regarding inclusion. Potential conflicts will be resolved through discussion. Thematic synthesis will be used to synthesise this literature, and study quality will be assessed using the Joanna Briggs Institute Critical Appraisal Checklist for Qualitative Research. The planned review will be reported according to the Enhancing Transparency in Reporting the Synthesis of Qualitative Research (ENTREQ) statement.


          The growing body of research on loneliness predictors, outcomes, and interventions must be grounded in an understanding of the lived experience of loneliness. This systematic review and thematic synthesis will clarify how loneliness is subjectively experienced across the lifespan in the general population. This will allow for a more holistic understanding of the lived experience of loneliness which can inform clinicians, researchers, and policymakers working in this important area.

          Systematic review registration

          PROSPERO CRD42020178105.

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          Most cited references42

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          Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement.

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            Preferred reporting items for systematic review and meta-analysis protocols (PRISMA-P) 2015 statement

            Systematic reviews should build on a protocol that describes the rationale, hypothesis, and planned methods of the review; few reviews report whether a protocol exists. Detailed, well-described protocols can facilitate the understanding and appraisal of the review methods, as well as the detection of modifications to methods and selective reporting in completed reviews. We describe the development of a reporting guideline, the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses for Protocols 2015 (PRISMA-P 2015). PRISMA-P consists of a 17-item checklist intended to facilitate the preparation and reporting of a robust protocol for the systematic review. Funders and those commissioning reviews might consider mandating the use of the checklist to facilitate the submission of relevant protocol information in funding applications. Similarly, peer reviewers and editors can use the guidance to gauge the completeness and transparency of a systematic review protocol submitted for publication in a journal or other medium.
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              Methods for the thematic synthesis of qualitative research in systematic reviews

              Background There is a growing recognition of the value of synthesising qualitative research in the evidence base in order to facilitate effective and appropriate health care. In response to this, methods for undertaking these syntheses are currently being developed. Thematic analysis is a method that is often used to analyse data in primary qualitative research. This paper reports on the use of this type of analysis in systematic reviews to bring together and integrate the findings of multiple qualitative studies. Methods We describe thematic synthesis, outline several steps for its conduct and illustrate the process and outcome of this approach using a completed review of health promotion research. Thematic synthesis has three stages: the coding of text 'line-by-line'; the development of 'descriptive themes'; and the generation of 'analytical themes'. While the development of descriptive themes remains 'close' to the primary studies, the analytical themes represent a stage of interpretation whereby the reviewers 'go beyond' the primary studies and generate new interpretive constructs, explanations or hypotheses. The use of computer software can facilitate this method of synthesis; detailed guidance is given on how this can be achieved. Results We used thematic synthesis to combine the studies of children's views and identified key themes to explore in the intervention studies. Most interventions were based in school and often combined learning about health benefits with 'hands-on' experience. The studies of children's views suggested that fruit and vegetables should be treated in different ways, and that messages should not focus on health warnings. Interventions that were in line with these suggestions tended to be more effective. Thematic synthesis enabled us to stay 'close' to the results of the primary studies, synthesising them in a transparent way, and facilitating the explicit production of new concepts and hypotheses. Conclusion We compare thematic synthesis to other methods for the synthesis of qualitative research, discussing issues of context and rigour. Thematic synthesis is presented as a tried and tested method that preserves an explicit and transparent link between conclusions and the text of primary studies; as such it preserves principles that have traditionally been important to systematic reviewing.

                Author and article information

                Syst Rev
                Syst Rev
                Systematic Reviews
                BioMed Central (London )
                6 December 2020
                6 December 2020
                : 9
                : 284
                [1 ]GRID grid.4777.3, ISNI 0000 0004 0374 7521, School of Psychology, , Queen’s University Belfast, ; David Keir Building, 18-30 Malone Road, Belfast, BT9 5BN UK
                [2 ]GRID grid.8250.f, ISNI 0000 0000 8700 0572, Department of Sociology, , Durham University, ; 29-32 Old Elvet, Durham, DH1 3HN UK
                Author information
                © The Author(s) 2020

                Open AccessThis article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

                : 28 May 2020
                : 25 November 2020
                Funded by: NINE DTP
                Award ID: None (Master's + PhD Funding)
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                © The Author(s) 2020

                Public health
                loneliness,experiences of loneliness,systematic review,thematic synthesis,qualitative


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