Another Study Warns That Evidence From Observational Studies Provides Unreliable Results For Therapies

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Another Study Warns That Evidence From Observational Studies Provides Unreliable Results For Therapies

We have previously mentioned the enormous contributions made by John Ioannidis MD in the area of understanding the reliability of medical evidence. [Ioannidis, Delfini Blog, Giannakakis] We want to draw your attention to a recent publication dealing with the risks of relying on observational data for cause and effect conclusions. [Hemkens] In this recent study, Hemkens, Ioannidis and other colleagues assessed differences in mortality effect size reported in observational (routinely collected data [RCD]) studies as compared with results reported in RCTs.

Eligible RCD studies used propensity scores in an effort to address confounding bias in the observational studies. The authors  compared the results of RCD and RCTs. The analysis included only RCD studies conducted before any RCT was published on the same topic. They assessed the risk of bias for RCD studies and randomized controlled trials (RCTs) using The Cochrane Collaboration risk of bias tools.  The direction of treatment effects, confidence intervals and effect sizes (odds ratios) were compared between RCD studies and RCTs. The relative odds ratios were calculated across all pairs of RCD studies and trials.

The authors found that RCD studies systematically and substantially overestimated mortality benefits of medical treatments compared with subsequent trials investigating the same question. Overall, RCD studies reported significantly more favorable mortality estimates by a relative 31% than subsequent trials (summary relative odds ratio 1.31 (95% confidence interval 1.03 to 1.65; I2 (I square)=0%)).

These authors remind us yet again that If no randomized trials exist, clinicians and other decision-makers should not trust results from observational data from sources such as local or national databases, registries, cohort or case-control studies. 

References
Delfini Blog: http://delfini.org/blog/?p=292

Giannakakis IA, Haidich AB, Contopoulos-Ioannidis DG, Papanikolaou GN, Baltogianni MS, Ioannidis JP. Citation of randomized evidence in support of guidelines of therapeutic and preventive interventions. J Clin Epidemiol. 2002 Jun;55(6):545-55. PubMed PMID: 12063096.

Hemkens LG, Contopoulos-Ioannidis DG, Ioannidis JP. Agreement of treatment effects for mortality from routinely collected data and subsequent randomized trials: meta-epidemiological survey. BMJ. 2016 Feb 8;352:i493. doi: 10.1136/bmj.i493. PubMed PMID: 26858277.

Ioannidis JPA. Why Most Published Research Findings are False. PLoS Med 2005; 2(8):696-701 PMID: 16060722

 

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Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER), “Big Data” & Causality

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Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER), “Big Data” & Causality

For a number of years now, we’ve been concerned that the CER movement and the growing love affair with “big data,” will lead to many erroneous conclusions about cause and effect.  We were pleased to see the following blog from Austin Frakt, an editor-in-chief of The Incidental Economist: Contemplating health care with a focus on research, an eye on reform

Ten impressions of big data: Claims, aspirations, hardly any causal inference

http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/ten-impressions-of-big-data-claims-aspirations-hardly-any-causal-inference/

+

Five more big data quotes: The ambitions and challenges

http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/five-more-big-data-quotes/

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Comparison of Risk of Bias Ratings in Clinical Trials—Journal Publications Versus Clinical Study Reports

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Comparison of Risk of Bias Ratings in Clinical Trials—Journal Publications Versus Clinical Study Reports

Many critical appraisers assess bias using tools such as the Cochrane risk of bias tool (Higgins 11) or tools freely available from us (http://www.delfini.org/delfiniTools.htm). Internal validity is assessed by evaluating important items such as generation of the randomization sequence, concealment of allocation, blinding, attrition and assessment of results.

Jefferson et al. recently compared the risk of bias in 14 oseltamivir trials using information from previous assessments based on the study publications and the newly acquired, more extensive clinical study reports (CSRs) obtained from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the manufacturer, Roche.

Key findings include the following:

  • Evaluations using more complete information from the CSRs resulted in no difference in the number of previous assessment of “high” risk of bias.
  • However, over half (55%, 34/62) of the previous “low” risk of bias ratings were reclassified as “high.”
  • Most of the previous “unclear” risk of bias ratings (67%, 28/32) were changed to “high” risk of bias ratings when CSRs were available.

The authors discuss the idea that the risk of bias tools are important because they facilitate the process of critical appraisal of medical evidence. They also call for greater availability of the CSRs as the basic unit available for critical appraisal.

Delfini Comment

We believe that both sponsors and researchers need to provide more study detail so that critical appraisers can provide more precise ratings of risk of bias. Study publications frequently lack information needed by critical appraisers.

We agree that CSRs should be made available so they can be used to improve their assessments of clinical trials.  However, our experience has been the opposite of that experienced by the authors.  When companies have invited us to work with them to assess the reliability of their studies and made CSRs available to us, frequently we have found important information not otherwise available in the study publication.  When this happens, studies otherwise given a rating at higher risk of bias have often been determined to be at low risk of bias and of high quality.

References

1. Higgins JP, Altman DG, Gøtzsche PC, Jüni P, Moher D, Oxman AD, Savovic J, Schulz KF, Weeks L, Sterne JA; Cochrane Bias Methods Group; Cochrane Statistical  Methods Group. The Cochrane Collaboration’s tool for assessing risk of bias in randomised trials. BMJ. 2011 Oct 18;343:d5928. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d5928. PubMed PMID: 22008217.

2. Jefferson T, Jones MA, Doshi P, Del Mar CB, Hama R, Thompson MJ, Onakpoya I, Heneghan CJ. Risk of bias in industry-funded oseltamivir trials: comparison of core reports versus full clinical study reports. BMJ Open. 2014 Sep 30;4(9):e005253. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005253. PubMed PMID: 25270852.

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Medical Literature Searching Update

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Searching Update

We’ve updated our searching tips.  You can download our Searching the Medical Literature Tool, along with others freely available, at our library of Tools & Educational Materials by Delfini:

http://www.delfini.org/delfiniTools.htm

1. Quick Way To Find Drug Information On The FDA Site

If you are looking for information about a specific drug, (e.g.,  a drug recently approved by the FDA) you it may be faster to use Google to find the information you want. Type “FDA [drug name].

2.  Also see Searching With Symbols in the tool.

 

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Can Clinical Guidelines be Trusted?

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Can Clinical Guidelines be Trusted?

In a recent BMJ article, “Why we can’t trust clinical guidelines,” Jeanne Lenzer raises a number of concerns regarding clinical guidelines[1]. She begins by summarizing the conflict between 1990 guidelines recommending steroids for acute spinal injury versus 2013 cllinical recommendations against using steroids in acute spinal injury. She then asks, “Why do processes intended to prevent or reduce bias fail?

Her proposed answers to this question include the following—

  • Many doctors follow guidelines, even if not convinced about the recommendations, because they fear professional censure and possible harm to their careers.
    • Supporting this, she cites a poll of over 1000 neurosurgeons which showed that—
      • Only 11% believed the treatment was safe and effective.
      • Only 6% thought it should be a standard of care.
      • Yet when asked if they would continue prescribing the treatment, 60% said that they would. Many cited a fear of malpractice if they failed to follow “a standard of care.” (Note: the standard of care changed in March 2013 when the Congress of Neurological Surgeons stated there was no high quality evidence to support the recommendation.)
  • Clinical guideline chairs and participants frequently have financial conflicts.
    • The Cochrane reviewer for the 1990 guideline she references had strong ties to industry.

Delfini Comment

  • Fear-based Decision-making by Physicians

We believe this is a reality. In our work with administrative law judges, we have been told that if you “run with the pack,” you better be right, and if you “run outside the pack,” you really better be right. And what happens in court is not necessarily true or just. The solution is better recommendations constructed from individualized, thoughtful decisions based on valid critically appraised evidence found to be clinically useful, patient preferences and other factors. The important starting place is effective critical appraisal of the evidence.

  • Financial Conflicts of Interest & Industry Influence

It is certainly true that money can sway decisions, be it coming from industry support or potential for income. However, we think that most doctors want to do their best for patients and try to make decisions or provide recommendations with the patient’s best interest in mind. Therefore, we think this latter issue may be more complex and strongly affected in both instances by the large number of physicians and others involved in health care decision-making who 1) do not understand that many research studies are not valid or reported sufficiently to tell; and, 2) lack the skills to be able to differentiate reliable studies from those which may not be reliable.

When it comes to industry support, one of the variables traveling with money includes greater exposure to information through data or contacts with experts supporting that manufacturer’s products. We suspect that industry influence may be less due to financial incentives than this exposure coupled with lack of critical appraisal understanding. As such, we wrote a Letter to the Editor describing our theory that the major problem of low quality guidelines might stem from physicians’ and others’ lack of competency in evaluating the quality of the evidence. Our response is reproduced here.

Delfini BMJ Rapid Response [2]:

We (Delfini) believe that we have some unique insight into how ties to industry may result in advocacy for a particular intervention due to our extensive experience training health care professionals and students in critical appraisal of the medical literature. We think it is very possible that the outcomes Lenzer describes are less due to financial influence than are due to lack of knowledge. The vast majority of physicians and other health care professionals do not have even rudimentary skills in identifying science that is at high to medium risk of bias or understand when results may have a high likelihood of being due to chance. Having ties to industry would likely result in greater exposure to science supporting a particular intervention.

Without the ability to evaluate the quality of the science, we think it is likely that individuals would be swayed and/or convinced by that science. The remedy for this and for other problems with the quality of clinical guidelines is ensuring that all guideline development members have basic critical appraisal skills and there is enough transparency in guidelines so that appraisal of a guideline and the studies utilized can easily be accomplished.

References

1. Lenzer J. Why we can’t trust clinical guidelines. BMJ 2013; 346:f3830

2. Strite SA, Stuart M. BMJ Rapid Response: Why we can’t trust clinical guidelines. BMJ 2013;346:f3830; http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f3830/rr/651876

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