Evaluating medication effects outside of clinical trials: new-user designs

Am J Epidemiol. 2003 Nov 1;158(9):915-20. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwg231.


Recent clinical trials demonstrating that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) does not prevent coronary heart disease in women have again raised doubts concerning observational studies. Although much of the explanation probably lies in what might be called the "healthy HRT user" effect, another contributing factor may be that most observational studies included many prevalent users: women taking HRT for some time before study follow-up began. This practice can cause two types of bias, both of which plausibly may have contributed to the discrepancy between observational and randomized studies. First, prevalent users are "survivors" of the early period of pharmacotherapy, which can introduce substantial bias if risk varies with time, just as in studies of operative procedures that enroll patients after they have survived surgery. This article provides several examples of medications for which the hazard function varies with time and thus would be subject to prevalent user bias. Second, covariates for drug users at study entry often are plausibly affected by the drug itself. Investigators often do not adjust for these factors on the causal pathway, which may introduce confounding. A new-user design eliminates these biases by restricting the analysis to persons under observation at the start of the current course of treatment. This article thus argues that such designs should be used more frequently in pharmacoepidemiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy*
  • Humans
  • Pharmacoepidemiology*