An overview of confounding. Part 1: the concept and how to address it

Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2018 Apr;97(4):394-399. doi: 10.1111/aogs.13295. Epub 2018 Feb 8.


Confounding is an important source of bias, but it is often misunderstood. We consider how confounding occurs and how to address confounding using examples. Study results are confounded when the effect of the exposure on the outcome, mixes with the effects of other risk and protective factors for the outcome. This problem arises when these factors are present to different degrees among the exposed and unexposed study participants, but not all differences between the groups result in confounding. Thinking about an ideal study where all of the population of interest is exposed in one universe and is unexposed in a parallel universe helps to distinguish confounders from other differences. In an actual study, an observed unexposed population is chosen to stand in for the unobserved parallel universe. Differences between this substitute population and the parallel universe result in confounding. Confounding by identified factors can be addressed analytically and through study design, but only randomization has the potential to address confounding by unmeasured factors. Nevertheless, a given randomized study may still be confounded. Confounded study results can lead to incorrect conclusions about the effect of the exposure of interest on the outcome.

Keywords: Bias; causality; confounding factors (epidemiology); data analysis; epidemiologic methods; epidemiologic research design.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic*
  • Gynecology
  • Humans
  • Obstetrics
  • Research Design*