A Trial Emulation Approach for Policy Evaluations with Group-level Longitudinal Data

Epidemiology. 2021 Jul 1;32(4):533-540. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000001369.


To limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments across the world implemented extraordinary physical distancing policies, such as stay-at-home orders. Numerous studies aim to estimate the effects of these policies. Many statistical and econometric methods, such as difference-in-differences, leverage repeated measurements, and variation in timing to estimate policy effects, including in the COVID-19 context. Although these methods are less common in epidemiology, epidemiologic researchers are well accustomed to handling similar complexities in studies of individual-level interventions. Target trial emulation emphasizes the need to carefully design a nonexperimental study in terms of inclusion and exclusion criteria, covariates, exposure definition, and outcome measurement-and the timing of those variables. We argue that policy evaluations using group-level longitudinal ("panel") data need to take a similar careful approach to study design that we refer to as policy trial emulation. This approach is especially important when intervention timing varies across jurisdictions; the main idea is to construct target trials separately for each treatment cohort (states that implement the policy at the same time) and then aggregate. We present a stylized analysis of the impact of state-level stay-at-home orders on total coronavirus cases. We argue that estimates from panel methods-with the right data and careful modeling and diagnostics-can help add to our understanding of many policies, though doing so is often challenging.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Physical Distancing
  • Policy
  • SARS-CoV-2