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      Reducing bias through directed acyclic graphs

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      1 , , 2
      BMC Medical Research Methodology
      BioMed Central

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          Abstract

          Background

          The objective of most biomedical research is to determine an unbiased estimate of effect for an exposure on an outcome, i.e. to make causal inferences about the exposure. Recent developments in epidemiology have shown that traditional methods of identifying confounding and adjusting for confounding may be inadequate.

          Discussion

          The traditional methods of adjusting for "potential confounders" may introduce conditional associations and bias rather than minimize it. Although previous published articles have discussed the role of the causal directed acyclic graph approach (DAGs) with respect to confounding, many clinical problems require complicated DAGs and therefore investigators may continue to use traditional practices because they do not have the tools necessary to properly use the DAG approach. The purpose of this manuscript is to demonstrate a simple 6-step approach to the use of DAGs, and also to explain why the method works from a conceptual point of view.

          Summary

          Using the simple 6-step DAG approach to confounding and selection bias discussed is likely to reduce the degree of bias for the effect estimate in the chosen statistical model.

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          Most cited references27

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          Marginal structural models to estimate the causal effect of zidovudine on the survival of HIV-positive men.

          Standard methods for survival analysis, such as the time-dependent Cox model, may produce biased effect estimates when there exist time-dependent confounders that are themselves affected by previous treatment or exposure. Marginal structural models are a new class of causal models the parameters of which are estimated through inverse-probability-of-treatment weighting; these models allow for appropriate adjustment for confounding. We describe the marginal structural Cox proportional hazards model and use it to estimate the causal effect of zidovudine on the survival of human immunodeficiency virus-positive men participating in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. In this study, CD4 lymphocyte count is both a time-dependent confounder of the causal effect of zidovudine on survival and is affected by past zidovudine treatment. The crude mortality rate ratio (95% confidence interval) for zidovudine was 3.6 (3.0-4.3), which reflects the presence of confounding. After controlling for baseline CD4 count and other baseline covariates using standard methods, the mortality rate ratio decreased to 2.3 (1.9-2.8). Using a marginal structural Cox model to control further for time-dependent confounding due to CD4 count and other time-dependent covariates, the mortality rate ratio was 0.7 (95% conservative confidence interval = 0.6-1.0). We compare marginal structural models with previously proposed causal methods.
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            A structural approach to selection bias.

            The term "selection bias" encompasses various biases in epidemiology. We describe examples of selection bias in case-control studies (eg, inappropriate selection of controls) and cohort studies (eg, informative censoring). We argue that the causal structure underlying the bias in each example is essentially the same: conditioning on a common effect of 2 variables, one of which is either exposure or a cause of exposure and the other is either the outcome or a cause of the outcome. This structure is shared by other biases (eg, adjustment for variables affected by prior exposure). A structural classification of bias distinguishes between biases resulting from conditioning on common effects ("selection bias") and those resulting from the existence of common causes of exposure and outcome ("confounding"). This classification also leads to a unified approach to adjust for selection bias.
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              Quantifying biases in causal models: classical confounding vs collider-stratification bias.

              It has long been known that stratifying on variables affected by the study exposure can create selection bias. More recently it has been shown that stratifying on a variable that precedes exposure and disease can induce confounding, even if there is no confounding in the unstratified (crude) estimate. This paper examines the relative magnitudes of these biases under some simple causal models in which the stratification variable is graphically depicted as a collider (a variable directly affected by two or more other variables in the graph). The results suggest that bias from stratifying on variables affected by exposure and disease may often be comparable in size with bias from classical confounding (bias from failing to stratify on a common cause of exposure and disease), whereas other biases from collider stratification may tend to be much smaller.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                BMC Med Res Methodol
                BMC Medical Research Methodology
                BioMed Central
                1471-2288
                2008
                30 October 2008
                : 8
                : 70
                Affiliations
                [1 ]Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Community Studies, SMBD-Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
                [2 ]Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
                Article
                1471-2288-8-70
                10.1186/1471-2288-8-70
                2601045
                18973665
                3f61e9fa-aca0-4605-9bc8-c9a092aa1ed1
                Copyright © 2008 Shrier and Platt; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

                This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                Categories
                Correspondence

                Medicine
                Medicine

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