Assessing causal treatment effect estimation when using large observational datasets

E R John, K R Abrams, C E Brightling, N A Sheehan
BMC Medical Research Methodology 2019 November 14, 19 (1): 207

BACKGROUND: Recently, there has been a heightened interest in developing and evaluating different methods for analysing observational data. This has been driven by the increased availability of large data resources such as Electronic Health Record (EHR) data alongside known limitations and changing characteristics of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). A wide range of methods are available for analysing observational data. However, various, sometimes strict, and often unverifiable assumptions must be made in order for the resulting effect estimates to have a causal interpretation. In this paper we will compare some common approaches to estimating treatment effects from observational data in order to highlight the importance of considering, and justifying, the relevant assumptions prior to conducting an observational analysis.

METHODS: A simulation study was conducted based upon a small cohort of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Two-stage least squares instrumental variables, propensity score, and linear regression models were compared under a range of different scenarios including different strengths of instrumental variable and unmeasured confounding. The effects of violating the assumptions of the instrumental variables analysis were also assessed. Sample sizes of up to 200,000 patients were considered.

RESULTS: Two-stage least squares instrumental variable methods can yield unbiased treatment effect estimates in the presence of unmeasured confounding provided the sample size is sufficiently large. Adjusting for measured covariates in the analysis reduces the variability in the two-stage least squares estimates. In the simulation study, propensity score methods produced very similar results to linear regression for all scenarios. A weak instrument or strong unmeasured confounding led to an increase in uncertainty in the two-stage least squares instrumental variable effect estimates. A violation of the instrumental variable assumptions led to bias in the two-stage least squares effect estimates. Indeed, these were sometimes even more biased than those from a naïve linear regression model.

CONCLUSIONS: Instrumental variable methods can perform better than naïve regression and propensity scores. However, the assumptions need to be carefully considered and justified prior to conducting an analysis or performance may be worse than if the problem of unmeasured confounding had been ignored altogether.

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