Types of study designs: from descriptive studies to randomized controlled trials

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD
Assistant Professor of Medicine and of Epidemiology and Biostatistics University of California, San Francisco

Objectives

To understand the difference between descriptive and analytic studies To identify the hierarchy of study designs, and the strengths and weakness of each design To be able to apply different study designs to the same research question

Types of Studies
 

Descriptive Studies Observational Analytic Studies
  

Cross Sectional studies Case Control studies Cohort studies

Experimental Studies

Randomized controlled trials

Hierarchy of Study Types
Analytic

Descriptive •Case report •Case series •Survey

Observational •Cross sectional •Case-control •Cohort studies

Experimental •Randomized controlled trials

Strength of evidence for causality between a risk factor and outcome

Descriptive studies

Getting a “lay of the land”

Surveys (NHIS, MCBS)

“How many men in the U.S. filled Viagra prescriptions in 2004?”

Describing a novel phenomena

Case reports or case series
 

Viagra-associated serous macular detachment. Sildenafil-associated nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy.

Descriptive studies
 

Cannot establish causal relationships Still play an important role in describing trends and generating hypotheses about novel associations The start of HIV/AIDS research
 

Squamous cell carcinoma in sexual partner of Kaposi sarcoma patient. Lancet. 1982 Jan 30;1(8266):286. New outbreak of oral tumors, malignancies and infectious diseases strikes young male homosexuals. CDA J. 1982 Mar;10(3):39-42. AIDS in the "gay" areas of San Francisco. Lancet. 1983 Apr 23;1(8330):923-4.

Analytic Studies

Attempt to establish a causal link between a predictor/risk factor and an outcome. You are doing an analytic study if you have any of the following words in your research question:

greater than, less than, causes, leads to, compared with, more likely than, associated with, related to, similar to, correlated with

Hierarchy of Study Types
Analytic

Descriptive •Case report •Case series •Survey

Observational •Cross sectional •Case-control •Cohort studies

Experimental •Randomized controlled trials

Strength of evidence for causality between a risk factor and outcome

Research Question
Is the regular consumption of Red Bull associated with improved academic performance among U.S. medical students?

Rationale

“functional drink” designed for periods of mental and physical exertion.

performance, concentration, memory, reaction time, vigilance, and emotional balance

Taurine + glucuronolactone + caffeine

Background

Alford C, Cox H, Wescott R. The effects of red bull energy drink on human performance and mood. Amino Acids. 2001;21(2):139-50. Warburton DM, Bersellini E, Sweeney E. An evaluation of a caffeinated taurine drink on mood, memory and information processing in healthy volunteers without caffeine abstinence. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001 Nov;158(3):322-8. Seidl R, Peyrl A, Nicham R, Hauser E. A taurine and caffeinecontaining drink stimulates cognitive performance and well-being. Amino Acids. 2000;19(3-4):635-42. Horne JA, Reyner LA. Beneficial effects of an "energy drink" given to sleepy drivers. Amino Acids. 2001;20(1):83-9. Kennedy DO, Scholey AB. A glucose-caffeine 'energy drink' ameliorates subjective and performancedeficits during prolonged cognitive demand. Appetite. 2004 Jun;42(3):331-3.

Great idea, but how do you get started….

Interesting, novel, and relevant, but… You only have 25,000 dollars to start investigating this question. What is feasible?

Study Design #1

Cross-sectional study of UCSF medical students taking USMLE Step 2 Questionnaire administered when registering for USMLE 2
 

Primary predictor: self-report of >3 cans Red Bull per week for the previous year Covariates: Age, sex, undergraduate university, place of birth

Outcome: Score on USMLE Step 2

Cross-sectional study: structure

Red Bull consumption

USMLE Score

time

Cross-sectional Study:

Descriptive value:  How many UCSF medical students drink Red Bull?  What is the age and sex distribution of UCSF medical students who drink Red Bull? Analytic value:  Is there an association between regular Red Bull consumption and test scores among UCSF med students?
 

Univariate Multivariate (controlling for “confounders”)

Other cross-sectional surveys:  AAMC  California Health Interview Survey (NHIS, CHIS)  National Health and Nutrition Exam Survey (NHANES)

Cross-sectional Study: Pluses
+ + + + Prevalence (not incidence) Fast/Inexpensive - no waiting! No loss to follow up Associations can be studied

Measures of association
Disease Yes Yes Risk Factor No C D A No B
Risk ratio (relative risk) A A+B C C+D

Cross-sectional study: minuses
Cannot determine causality
Red Bull consumption

USMLE Score

time

Cross-sectional study: minuses
Cannot determine causality

•ACE inhibitor use and hospitalization rates among those with heart failure •Heart failure patients with a documented DNR status and mortality

time

Cross-sectional study: minuses
Cannot determine causality

-

Cannot study rare outcomes

What if you are interested in the rare outcome?

The association between regular Red Bull consumption and…
 

A perfect score on the USMLE – Step 2 Graduating top 1% of the medical school class Acceptance into a highly selective residency
ANSWER: A Case-Control study

Study Design #2
 

A case-control study Cases: 4th year med students accepted to residency in “highly selective specialty X”. Controls: 4th year med students who applied but were not accepted. Predictor: self-reported regular Red Bull consumption

Additional covariates (age, sex, medical school, undergraduate institution)

Case control studies

Investigator works “backward” (from outcome to predictor) Sample chosen on the basis of outcome (cases), plus comparison group (controls)

Case-control study structure
present ACTUAL CASES TARGET CASES 4th year UCSF students Medical students accepted to who matched in “highly highly selective residencies selective specialty X”

Red Bull consumption YES Red Bull consumption NO

ACTUAL CONTROLS TARGET CONTROLS 4th year students who to highly All unsuccessful applicants failed to match in “highly selective selective residency programs specialty X” time

Case control studies

Determines the strength of the association between each predictor variable and the presence or absence of disease Cannot yield estimates of incidence or prevalence of disease in the population (why?) Odds Ratio is statistics

Case-control Study: pluses
+ Rare outcome/Long latent period + Inexpensive and efficient: may be only feasible option + Establishes association (Odds ratio) + Useful for generating hypotheses (multiple risk factors can be explored)

Case-control study-minuses
-

Causality still difficult to establish
-

Selection bias (appropriate controls)
-

Caffeine and Pancreatic cancer in the GI clinic

-

Recall bias: sampling (retrospective)
-

Abortion and risk of breast cancer in Sweden

-

Cannot tell about incidence or prevalence
-

Studies of diagnostic tests:
-

Sensitivity, specificity Positive predictive value, negative predictive value

Measures of association
Disease Yes Yes Test No C D A No B
Sensitivity = A/A+C Specificity = D/B+D

PPV = A/A+B NPV = D/C+D

Case-control - “the house red”

Rely tampons and toxic shock syndrome:
   

High rates of toxic shock syndrome in menstruating women Suspected OCPs or meds for PMS Cases: 180 women with TSS in 6 geographic areas Controls: 180 female friends of these patients and 180 females in the same telephone code Tampon associated with TSS (OR = 29!) Super absorbency associated with TSS (OR 1.34 per gm increase in absorbency) Led to “RELY” brand tampons being taken off the market.

 

Where are we?

Preliminary results from our cross-sectional and case-control study suggest an association between Red Bull consumption and improved academic performance among medical students What’s missing? - strengthening evidence for a causal link between Red Bull consumption and academic performance Use results from our previous studies to apply for funding for a prospective cohort study!

Study design #3

Prospective cohort study of UCSF medical students Class of 2009 All entering medical students surveyed regarding beverage consumption and variety of other potential covariates Survey updated annually to record changes in Red Bull consumption Outcomes: USMLE Step 1 score, USMLE Step 2 score, match in first choice residency

Cohort studies

A cohort (follow-up, longitudinal) study is a comparative, observational study in which subjects are grouped by their exposure status, i.e., whether or not the subject was exposed to a suspected risk factor The subjects, exposed and unexposed to the risk factor, are followed forward in time to determine if one or more new outcomes (diseases) occur
• •

Subjects should not have outcome variable on entry No new subjects allowed in after initial recruitment

The rates of disease incidence among the exposed and unexposed groups are determined and compared.

Elements of a cohort study
   

Selection of sample from population Measures predictor variables in sample Follow population for period of time Measure outcome variable Famous cohort studies
   

Framingham Nurses’ Health Study Physicians’ Health Study Olmsted County, Minnesota

Prospective cohort study structure
The present The future

Top USMLE scorers

Everyone else time

Strengths of cohort studies

Know that predictor variable was present before outcome variable occurred (some evidence of causality) Directly measure incidence of a disease outcome Can study multiple outcomes of a single exposure (RR is measure of association)

Weaknesses of cohort studies

Expensive and inefficient for studying rare outcomes

HERS vs. WHI

Often need long follow-up period or a very large population

CARDIA

Loss to follow-up can affect validity of findings

Framingham

Other types of cohort studies

Retrospective cohort

 

Identification of cohort, measurement of predictor variables, follow-up and measurement of outcomes have all occurred in the past Much less costly than prospective cohorts Investigator has minimal control over study design

Other types of cohort studies

Nested case-control study
 

Case-control study embedded in a cohort study Controls are drawn randomly from study sample Used to compare two separate cohorts with different levels of exposure to predictor variable (e.g., occupational groups)

Double cohort

What type of study is this?

Among individuals with coronary disease, what is the association between baseline levels of B-type natriuretic peptide and subsequent risk of heart failure? Among individuals presenting to heart failure clinic, what is the association between self-reported symptoms and risk of hospitalization for heart failure? Using data from HERS (RCT of HRT in women with coronary disease):  Determine the risk factors for developing incident heart failure among women without heart failure at baseline.  Determine whether HRT is associated with mortality among women with heart failure.  Determine genetic markers for development of heart failure among black women in HERS.

Hierarchy of Study Types
Analytic

Descriptive •Case report •Case series •Survey

Observational •Cross sectional •Case-control •Cohort studies

Experimental •Randomized controlled trials

Strength of evidence for causality between a risk factor and outcome

What distinguishes observational studies from experiments?

Ability to control for confounding
Confounder

Predictor

Outcome

Examples: sex (men are more likely to drink red bull and men are more likely to match in neurosurgery) Undergraduate institution (students from northwest school are more likely to drink red bull and also more likely to score higher on USMLE)

But we measured all of the potential confounders…….

In a prospective cohort study you can (maybe) measure all potential known confounders, but… You can’t control for unanticipated or unmeasured confounders

Study design # 4

Randomized controlled trial of daily Red Bull consumption among entering UCSF medical students Class 2009 Randomized to daily consumption of Red Bull vs. daily consumption of placebo Outcomes: USMLE Step 1 score, USMLE Step 2 score, match in first choice residency

Randomized controlled trials

Investigator controls the predictor variable (intervention or treatment) Major advantage over observational studies is ability to demonstrate causality Randomization controls unmeasured confounding Only for mature research questions

Basic Trial Design
Population

Treatment
Randomization

Dx

No Dx

Sample

Control Placebo

Dx

No Dx

Steps in a randomized controlled trial
1.

Select participants
  

high-risk for outcome (high incidence) Likely to benefit and not be harmed Likely to adhere

2. 3.

Measure baseline variables Randomize
 

Eliminates baseline confounding Types (simple, stratified, block)

Steps in a randomized controlled trial
1.

Blinding the intervention
 

2.

Follow subjects
 

As important as randomization Eliminates  co intervention  biased outcome ascertainment  biased measurement of outcome Adherence to protocol Lost to follow up Clinically important measures Adverse events

3.

Measure outcome
 

What is Blinding?

Single blind - participants are not aware of treatment group Double blind - both participants and investigators unaware Triple blind - various meanings
  

persons who perform tests outcome adjudicators safety monitoring group

Why blind?: Co interventions

Unintended effective interventions

participants use other therapy or change behavior study staff, medical providers, family or friends treat participants differently

 

Nondifferential - decreases power Differential - causes bias

Why blind?: Biased Outcome Ascertainment or adjudication

If group assignment is known
 

participants may report symptoms or outcomes differently physicians or investigators may elicit symptoms or outcomes differently Study staff or adjudicators may classify similar events differently in treatment groups

Problematic with “soft” outcomes
 

investigator judgement participant reported symptoms, scales

Analysis of randomized controlled trial
 

Analyzed like cohort study with RR Intention to treat analysis
 

Most conservative interpretation Include all persons assigned to intervention group (including those who did not get treatment or dropped out) Groups identified pre-randomization

Subgroup analysis

High Quality Randomized Trials
 

Tamper-proof randomization Blinding of participants, study staff, lab staff, outcome ascertainment and adjudication Adherence to study intervention and protocol Complete follow-up

A study type of every budget, purpose and research Types Hierarchy of Study question

Descriptive •Case report •Case series •Survey

Analytic

Observational •Cross sectional •Case-control •Cohort studies

Experimental •Randomized controlled trials

Strength of evidence for causality between a risk factor and outcome

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