Subgroup analyses of clinical trial data can be an important tool for understanding when treatment effects differ across populations. That said, even effect estimates from prespecified subgroups in well-conducted trials may not apply to corresponding subgroups in the source population. While this divergence may simply reflect statistical imprecision, there has been less discussion of systematic or structural sources of misleading subgroup estimates.
Study Design and Setting
We use directed acyclic graphs to show how selection bias caused by associations between effect measure modifiers and trial selection, whether explicit (e.g., eligibility criteria) or implicit (e.g., self-selection based on race), can result in subgroup estimates that do not correspond to subgroup effects in the source population. To demonstrate this point, we provide a hypothetical example illustrating the sorts of erroneous conclusions that can result, as well as their potential consequences. We also provide a tool for readers to explore additional cases.
Treating subgroups within a trial essentially as random samples of the corresponding subgroups in the wider population can be misleading, even when analyses are conducted rigorously and all findings are internally valid. Researchers should carefully examine associations between (and consider adjusting for) variables when attempting to identify heterogeneous treatment effects.
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Published online: June 18, 2020
Accepted: June 16, 2020
Funding: MJF was supported by NIH/NHLBI R01HL118255.
Conflict of interest: The authors have no conflict of interest to disclose.
Conflict of interest: No conflict of interest or competing interests to disclose.
© 2020 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.