Negative Control Outcomes and the Analysis of Standardized Mortality Ratios

Epidemiology. 2015 Sep;26(5):727-32. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000353.


In occupational cohort mortality studies, epidemiologists often compare the observed number of deaths in the cohort to the expected number obtained by multiplying person-time accrued in the study cohort by the mortality rate in an external reference population. Interpretation of the result may be difficult due to noncomparability of the occupational cohort and reference population with respect to unmeasured risk factors for the outcome of interest. We describe an approach to estimate an adjusted standardized mortality ratio (aSMR) to control for such bias. The approach draws on methods developed for the use of negative control outcomes. Conditions necessary for unbiased estimation are described, as well as looser conditions necessary for bias reduction. The approach is illustrated using data on bladder cancer mortality among male Oak Ridge National Laboratory workers. The SMR for bladder cancer was elevated among hourly-paid males (SMR = 1.9; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.3, 2.7) but not among monthly-paid males (SMR = 1.0; 95% CI = 0.67, 1.3). After indirect adjustment using the proposed approach, the mortality ratios were similar in magnitude among hourly- and monthly-paid men (aSMR = 2.2; 95% CI = 1.5, 3.2; and, aSMR = 2.0; 95% CI = 1.4, 2.8, respectively). The proposed adjusted SMR offers a complement to typical SMR analyses.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bias
  • Epidemiologic Research Design
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical
  • Occupational Diseases / mortality*
  • Urinary Bladder Neoplasms / mortality*