Strengthening Health Services Research Using Target Trial Emulation: An Application to Volume-Outcomes Studies

Am J Epidemiol. 2021 Nov 2;190(11):2453-2460. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwab170.


The number of operations that surgeons have previously performed is associated with their patients' outcomes. However, this association may not be causal, because previous studies have often been cross-sectional and their analyses have not considered time-varying confounding or positivity violations. In this paper, using the example of surgeons who perform coronary artery bypass grafting, we describe (hypothetical) target trials for estimation of the causal effect of the surgeons' operative volumes on patient mortality. We then demonstrate how to emulate these target trials using data from US Medicare claims and provide effect estimates. Our target trial emulations suggest that interventions on physicians' volume of coronary artery bypass grafting operations have little effect on patient mortality. The target trial framework highlights key assumptions and draws attention to areas of bias in previous observational analyses that deviated from their implicit target trials. The principles of the presented methodology may be adapted to other scenarios of substantive interest in health services research.

Keywords: coronary artery bypass grafting; health services research; inverse probability weighting; marginal structural models; operative volume; target trials.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Coronary Artery Bypass / mortality*
  • Datasets as Topic
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Female
  • Health Services Research / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicare / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Surgeons / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States / epidemiology