Distributed data networks enable large-scale epidemiologic studies, but protecting privacy while adequately adjusting for a large number of covariates continues to pose methodological challenges. Using 2 empirical examples within a 3-site distributed data network, we tested combinations of 3 aggregate-level data-sharing approaches (risk-set, summary-table, and effect-estimate), 4 confounding adjustment methods (matching, stratification, inverse probability weighting, and matching weighting), and 2 summary scores (propensity score and disease risk score) for binary and time-to-event outcomes. We assessed the performance of combinations of these data-sharing and adjustment methods by comparing their results with results from the corresponding pooled individual-level data analysis (reference analysis). For both types of outcomes, the method combinations examined yielded results identical or comparable to the reference results in most scenarios. Within each data-sharing approach, comparability between aggregate- and individual-level data analysis depended on adjustment method; for example, risk-set data-sharing with matched or stratified analysis of summary scores produced identical results, while weighted analysis showed some discrepancies. Across the adjustment methods examined, risk-set data-sharing generally performed better, while summary-table and effect-estimate data-sharing more often produced discrepancies in settings with rare outcomes and small sample sizes. Valid multivariable-adjusted analysis can be performed in distributed data networks without sharing of individual-level data.
Keywords: confounding control; data-sharing; disease risk score; distributed data networks; meta-analysis; multicenter studies; privacy protection; propensity score.
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