Background: Clinical studies that use observational databases, such as administrative claims and electronic health records, to evaluate the effects of medical products have become commonplace. These studies begin by selecting a particular study design, such as a case control, cohort, or self-controlled design, and different authors can and do choose different designs for the same clinical question. Furthermore, published papers invariably report the study design but do not discuss the rationale for the specific choice. Studies of the same clinical question with different designs, however, can generate different results, sometimes with strikingly different implications. Even within a specific study design, authors make many different analytic choices and these too can profoundly impact results. In this paper, we systematically study heterogeneity due to the type of study design and due to analytic choices within study design. Methods and findings: We conducted our analysis in 10 observational healthcare databases but mostly present our results in the context of the GE Centricity EMR database, an electronic health record database containing data for 11.2 million lives. We considered the impact of three different study design choices on estimates of associations between bisphosphonates and four particular health outcomes for which there is no evidence of an association. We show that applying alternative study designs can yield discrepant results, in terms of direction and significance of association. We also highlight that while traditional univariate sensitivity analysis may not show substantial variation, systematic assessment of all analytical choices within a study design can yield inconsistent results ranging from statistically significant decreased risk to statistically significant increased risk. Our findings show that clinical studies using observational databases can be sensitive both to study design choices and to specific analytic choices within study design. Conclusion: More attention is needed to consider how design choices may be impacting results and, when possible, investigators should examine a wide array of possible choices to confirm that significant findings are consistently identified.

analytic method, article, electronic medical record, observational study, priority journal, reference database, sensitivity analysis, study design,
Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Madigan, D, Ryan, P.B, & Schuemie, M.J. (2013). Does design matter? systematic evaluation of the impact of analytical choices on effect estimates in observational studies. Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety, 4(2), 53–62. doi:10.1177/2042098613477445