Case-control studies: research in reverse

Lancet. 2002 Feb 2;359(9304):431-4. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(02)07605-5.


Epidemiologists benefit greatly from having case-control study designs in their research armamentarium. Case-control studies can yield important scientific findings with relatively little time, money, and effort compared with other study designs. This seemingly quick road to research results entices many newly trained epidemiologists. Indeed, investigators implement case-control studies more frequently than any other analytical epidemiological study. Unfortunately, case-control designs also tend to be more susceptible to biases than other comparative studies. Although easier to do, they are also easier to do wrong. Five main notions guide investigators who do, or readers who assess, case-control studies. First, investigators must explicitly define the criteria for diagnosis of a case and any eligibility criteria used for selection. Second, controls should come from the same population as the cases, and their selection should be independent of the exposures of interest. Third, investigators should blind the data gatherers to the case or control status of participants or, if impossible, at least blind them to the main hypothesis of the study. Fourth, data gatherers need to be thoroughly trained to elicit exposure in a similar manner from cases and controls; they should use memory aids to facilitate and balance recall between cases and controls. Finally, investigators should address confounding in case-control studies, either in the design stage or with analytical techniques. Devotion of meticulous attention to these points enhances the validity of the results and bolsters the reader's confidence in the findings.

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design
  • Selection Bias*