Mediation Analysis for Health Disparities Research

Am J Epidemiol. 2016 Aug 15;184(4):315-24. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwv329. Epub 2016 Aug 3.


Social epidemiologists often seek to determine the mechanisms that underlie health disparities. This work is typically based on mediation procedures that may not be justified with exposures of common interest in social epidemiology. In this analysis, we explored the consequences of using standard approaches, referred to as the difference and generalized product methods, when mediator-outcome confounders are associated with the exposure. We compared these with inverse probability-weighted marginal structural models, the structural transformation method, doubly robust g-estimation of a structural nested model, and doubly robust targeted minimum loss-based estimation. We used data on 900,726 births from 2003 to 2007 in the Penn Moms study, conducted in Pennsylvania, to assess the extent to which breastfeeding prior to hospital discharge explained the racial disparity in infant mortality. Overall, for every 1,000 births, 3.36 more infant deaths occurred among non-Hispanic black women relative to all other women (95% confidence interval: 2.78, 3.93). Using the difference and generalized product methods to assess the disparity that would remain if everyone breastfed prior to discharge suggested a complete elimination of the disparity (risk difference = -0.87 per 1,000 births; 95% confidence interval: -1.39, -0.35). In contrast, doubly robust methods suggested a reduction in the disparity to 2.45 (95% confidence interval: 2.20, 2.71) more infant deaths per 1,000 births among non-Hispanic black women. Standard approaches for mediation analysis in health disparities research can yield misleading results.

Keywords: health disparities; marginal structural models; mediation analysis; proportion explained; social epidemiology; structural nested models; targeted minimum loss-based estimation.

MeSH terms

  • African Americans*
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Causality
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Continental Population Groups
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Mortality / ethnology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Pennsylvania / epidemiology
  • Socioeconomic Factors