INTRODUCTION: Several comparative real-world effectiveness studies on direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs) have been conducted, but an overview of the available evidence remains to be developed, which could provide a better understanding of the value of DOACs relative to vitamin K antagonists (VKAs). Areas covered: A systematic literature review was conducted on the available real-world evidence (RWE) of three DOACs (rivaroxaban, dabigatran, and apixaban) compared with VKAs (e.g. warfarin), in patients with nonvalvular atrial fibrillation (NVAF).This systematic literature review included RWE published up to December 2016. Studies with > 50 patients reporting on incident and prevalent NVAF cases were included. The following databases were searched: Medline, Embase, and the Cochrane Library. Outcomes of interest included thromboembolic events, all-cause mortality, bleeding events, and nonpersistence. Of the 562 RWE DOACs articles retrieved, 49 presented results for rivaroxaban versus VKAs, 79 for dabigatran versus VKAs, and 18 for apixaban versus VKAs. Substantial heterogeneity was found across patient population, outcome definition, and follow-up period. Major bleeding, ischemic stroke, and intracranial hemorrhage were the most frequent outcomes analyzed. Expert commentary: Overall, the RWE studies were aligned with the Phase 3 trials. However, conflicting results were reported for several outcomes of interest.