Why Statements About Confidence Intervals Often Result in Confusion Rather Than Confidence


Why Statements About Confidence Intervals Often Result in Confusion Rather Than Confidence

A recent paper by McCormack reminds us that authors may mislead readers by making unwarranted “all-or-none” statements and that readers should be mindful of this and carefully examine confidence intervals.

When examining results of a valid study, confidence intervals (CIs) provide much more information than p-values. The results are statistically significant if a confidence interval does not touch the line of no difference (zero in the case of measures of outcomes expressed as percentages such as absolute risk reduction and relative risk reduction and 1 in the case of ratios such as relative risk and odds ratios). However, in addition to providing information about statistical significance, confidence intervals also provide a plausible range for possibly true results within a margin of chance (5 percent in the case of a 95% CI). While the actual calculated outcome (i.e., the point estimate) is “the most likely to be true” result within the confidence interval, having this range enables readers to judge, in their opinion, if statistically significant results are clinically meaningful.

However, as McCormack points out, authors frequently do not provide useful interpretation of the confidence intervals, and authors at times report different conclusions from similar data. McCormack presents several cases that illustrate this problem, and this paper is worth reading.

As an illustration, assume two hypothetical studies report very similar results. In the first study of drug A versus drug B, the relative risk for mortality was 0.9, 95% CI (0.80 to 1.05). The authors might state that there was no difference in mortality between the two drugs because the difference is not statistically significant. However, the upper confidence interval is close to the line of no difference and so the confidence interval tells us that it is possible that a difference would have been found if more people were studied, so that statement is misleading. A better statement for the first study would include the confidence intervals and a neutral interpretation of what the results for mortality might mean. Example—

“The relative risk for overall mortality with drug A compared to placebo was 0.9, 95% CI (0.80 to 1.05). The confidence intervals tell us that Drug A may reduce mortality by up to a relative 20% (i.e., the relative risk reduction), but may increase mortality, compared to Drug B, by approximately 5%.”

In a second study with similar populations and interventions, the relative risk for mortality might be 0.93, 95% CI (0.83 to 0.99). In this case, some authors might state, “Drug A reduces mortality.” A better statement for this second hypothetical study would ensure that the reader knows that the upper confidence interval is close to the line of no difference and, therefore, is close to non-significance. Example—

“Although the mortality difference is statistically significant, the confidence interval indicates that the relative risk reduction may be as great as 17% but may be as small as 1%.”

The Bottom Line

  1. Remember that p-values refer only to statistical significance and confidence intervals are needed to evaluate clinical significance.
  2. Watch out for statements containing the words “no difference” in the reporting of study results. A finding of no statistically significant difference may be a product of too few people studied (or insufficient time).
  3. Watch out for statements implying meaningful differences between groups when one of the confidence intervals approaches the line of no difference.
  4. None of this means anything unless the study is valid. Remember that bias tends to favor the intervention under study.

If authors do not provide you with confidence intervals, you may be able to compute them yourself, if they have supplied you with sufficient data, using an online confidence interval calculator. For our favorites, search “confidence intervals” at our web links page: http://www.delfini.org/delfiniWebSources.htm


McCormack J, Vandermeer B, Allan GM. How confidence intervals become confusion intervals. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2013 Oct 31;13(1):134. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 24172248.

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