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Quality Assessment of Case-Control Studies
*CD, cannot determine; NA, not applicable; NR, not reported
Guidance for Assessing the Quality of Case-Control Studies
The guidance document below is organized by question number from the tool for quality assessment of case-control studies.
Question 1. Research question
Did the authors describe their goal in conducting this research? Is it easy to understand what they were looking to find? This issue is important for any scientific paper of any type. High quality scientific research explicitly defines a research question.
Question 2. Study population
Did the authors describe the group of individuals from which the cases and controls were selected or recruited, while using demographics, location, and time period? If the investigators conducted this study again, would they know exactly who to recruit, from where, and from what time period?
Investigators identify case-control study populations by location, time period, and inclusion criteria for cases (individuals with the disease, condition, or problem) and controls (individuals without the disease, condition, or problem). For example, the population for a study of lung cancer and chemical exposure would be all incident cases of lung cancer diagnosed in patients ages 35 to 79, from January 1, 2003 to December 31, 2008, living in Texas during that entire time period, as well as controls without lung cancer recruited from the same population during the same time period. The population is clearly described as: (1) who (men and women ages 35 to 79 with (cases) and without (controls) incident lung cancer); (2) where (living in Texas); and (3) when (between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2008).
Other studies may use disease registries or data from cohort studies to identify cases. In these cases, the populations are individuals who live in the area covered by the disease registry or included in a cohort study (i.e., nested case-control or case-cohort). For example, a study of the relationship between vitamin D intake and myocardial infarction might use patients identified via the GRACE registry, a database of heart attack patients.
NHLBI staff encouraged reviewers to examine prior papers on methods (listed in the reference list) to make this assessment, if necessary.
Question 3. Target population and case representation
In order for a study to truly address the research question, the target population–the population from which the study population is drawn and to which study results are believed to apply–should be carefully defined. Some authors may compare characteristics of the study cases to characteristics of cases in the target population, either in text or in a table. When study cases are shown to be representative of cases in the appropriate target population, it increases the likelihood that the study was well-designed per the research question.
However, because these statistics are frequently difficult or impossible to measure, publications should not be penalized if case representation is not shown. For most papers, the response to question 3 will be "NR." Those subquestions are combined because the answer to the second subquestion–case representation–determines the response to this item. However, it cannot be determined without considering the response to the first subquestion. For example, if the answer to the first subquestion is "yes," and the second, "CD," then the response for item 3 is "CD."
Question 4. Sample size justification
Did the authors discuss their reasons for selecting or recruiting the number of individuals included? Did they discuss the statistical power of the study and provide a sample size calculation to ensure that the study is adequately powered to detect an association (if one exists)? This question does not refer to a description of the manner in which different groups were included or excluded using the inclusion/exclusion criteria (e.g., "Final study size was 1,378 participants after exclusion of 461 patients with missing data" is not considered a sample size justification for the purposes of this question).
An article's methods section usually contains information on sample size and the size needed to detect differences in exposures and on statistical power.
Question 5. Groups recruited from the same population
To determine whether cases and controls were recruited from the same population, one can ask hypothetically, "If a control was to develop the outcome of interest (the condition that was used to select cases), would that person have been eligible to become a case?" Case-control studies begin with the selection of the cases (those with the outcome of interest, e.g., lung cancer) and controls (those in whom the outcome is absent). Cases and controls are then evaluated and categorized by their exposure status. For the lung cancer example, cases and controls were recruited from hospitals in a given region. One may reasonably assume that controls in the catchment area for the hospitals, or those already in the hospitals for a different reason, would attend those hospitals if they became a case; therefore, the controls are drawn from the same population as the cases. If the controls were recruited or selected from a different region (e.g., a State other than Texas) or time period (e.g., 1991-2000), then the cases and controls were recruited from different populations, and the answer to this question would be "no."
The following example further explores selection of controls. In a study, eligible cases were men and women, ages 18 to 39, who were diagnosed with atherosclerosis at hospitals in Perth, Australia, between July 1, 2000 and December 31, 2007. Appropriate controls for these cases might be sampled using voter registration information for men and women ages 18 to 39, living in Perth (population-based controls); they also could be sampled from patients without atherosclerosis at the same hospitals (hospital-based controls). As long as the controls are individuals who would have been eligible to be included in the study as cases (if they had been diagnosed with atherosclerosis), then the controls were selected appropriately from the same source population as cases.
In a prospective case-control study, investigators may enroll individuals as cases at the time they are found to have the outcome of interest; the number of cases usually increases as time progresses. At this same time, they may recruit or select controls from the population without the outcome of interest. One way to identify or recruit cases is through a surveillance system. In turn, investigators can select controls from the population covered by that system. This is an example of population-based controls. Investigators also may identify and select cases from a cohort study population and identify controls from outcome-free individuals in the same cohort study. This is known as a nested case-control study.
Question 6. Inclusion and exclusion criteria prespecified and applied uniformly
Were the inclusion and exclusion criteria developed prior to recruitment or selection of the study population? Were the same underlying criteria used for all of the groups involved? To answer this question, reviewers determined if the investigators developed I/E criteria prior to recruitment or selection of the study population and if they used the same underlying criteria for all groups. The investigators should have used the same selection criteria, except for study participants who had the disease or condition, which would be different for cases and controls by definition. Therefore, the investigators use the same age (or age range), gender, race, and other characteristics to select cases and controls. Information on this topic is usually found in a paper's section on the description of the study population.
Question 7. Case and control definitions
For this question, reviewers looked for descriptions of the validity of case and control definitions and processes or tools used to identify study participants as such. Was a specific description of "case" and "control" provided? Is there a discussion of the validity of the case and control definitions and the processes or tools used to identify study participants as such? They determined if the tools or methods were accurate, reliable, and objective. For example, cases might be identified as "adult patients admitted to a VA hospital from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2009, with an ICD-9 discharge diagnosis code of acute myocardial infarction and at least one of the two confirmatory findings in their medical records: at least 2mm of ST elevation changes in two or more ECG leads and an elevated troponin level. Investigators might also use ICD-9 or CPT codes to identify patients. All cases should be identified using the same methods. Unless the distinction between cases and controls is accurate and reliable, investigators cannot use study results to draw valid conclusions.
Question 8. Random selection of study participants
If a case-control study did not use 100 percent of eligible cases and/or controls (e.g., not all disease-free participants were included as controls), did the authors indicate that random sampling was used to select controls? When it is possible to identify the source population fairly explicitly (e.g., in a nested case-control study, or in a registry-based study), then random sampling of controls is preferred. When investigators used consecutive sampling, which is frequently done for cases in prospective studies, then study participants are not considered randomly selected. In this case, the reviewers would answer "no" to Question 8. However, this would not be considered a fatal flaw.
If investigators included all eligible cases and controls as study participants, then reviewers marked "NA" in the tool. If 100 percent of cases were included (e.g., NA for cases) but only 50 percent of eligible controls, then the response would be "yes" if the controls were randomly selected, and "no" if they were not. If this cannot be determined, the appropriate response is "CD."
Question 9. Concurrent controls
A concurrent control is a control selected at the time another person became a case, usually on the same day. This means that one or more controls are recruited or selected from the population without the outcome of interest at the time a case is diagnosed. Investigators can use this method in both prospective case-control studies and retrospective case-control studies. For example, in a retrospective study of adenocarcinoma of the colon using data from hospital records, if hospital records indicate that Person A was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the colon on June 22, 2002, then investigators would select one or more controls from the population of patients without adenocarcinoma of the colon on that same day. This assumes they conducted the study retrospectively, using data from hospital records. The investigators could have also conducted this study using patient records from a cohort study, in which case it would be a nested case-control study.
Investigators can use concurrent controls in the presence or absence of matching and vice versa. A study that uses matching does not necessarily mean that concurrent controls were used.
Question 10. Exposure assessed prior to outcome measurement
Investigators first determine case or control status (based on presence or absence of outcome of interest), and then assess exposure history of the case or control; therefore, reviewers ascertained that the exposure preceded the outcome. For example, if the investigators used tissue samples to determine exposure, did they collect them from patients prior to their diagnosis? If hospital records were used, did investigators verify that the date a patient was exposed (e.g., received medication for atherosclerosis) occurred prior to the date they became a case (e.g., was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes)? For an association between an exposure and an outcome to be considered causal, the exposure must have occurred prior to the outcome.
Question 11. Exposure measures and assessment
Were the exposure measures defined in detail? Were the tools or methods used to measure exposure accurate and reliable–for example, have they been validated or are they objective? This is important, as it influences confidence in the reported exposures. Equally important is whether the exposures were assessed in the same manner within groups and between groups. This question pertains to bias resulting from exposure misclassification (i.e., exposure ascertainment).
For example, a retrospective self-report of dietary salt intake is not as valid and reliable as prospectively using a standardized dietary log plus testing participants' urine for sodium content because participants' retrospective recall of dietary salt intake may be inaccurate and result in misclassification of exposure status. Similarly, BP results from practices that use an established protocol for measuring BP would be considered more valid and reliable than results from practices that did not use standard protocols. A protocol may include using trained BP assessors, standardized equipment (e.g., the same BP device which has been tested and calibrated), and a standardized procedure (e.g., patient is seated for 5 minutes with feet flat on the floor, BP is taken twice in each arm, and all four measurements are averaged).
Question 12. Blinding of exposure assessors
Blinding or masking means that outcome assessors did not know whether participants were exposed or unexposed. To answer this question, reviewers examined articles for evidence that the outcome assessor(s) was masked to the exposure status of the research participants. An outcome assessor, for example, may examine medical records to determine the outcomes that occurred in the exposed and comparison groups. Sometimes the person measuring the exposure is the same person conducting the outcome assessment. In this case, the outcome assessor would most likely not be blinded to exposure status. A reviewer would note such a finding in the comments section of the assessment tool.
One way to ensure good blinding of exposure assessment is to have a separate committee, whose members have no information about the study participants' status as cases or controls, review research participants' records. To help answer the question above, reviewers determined if it was likely that the outcome assessor knew whether the study participant was a case or control. If it was unlikely, then the reviewers marked "no" to Question 12. Outcome assessors who used medical records to assess exposure should not have been directly involved in the study participants' care, since they probably would have known about their patients' conditions. If the medical records contained information on the patient's condition that identified him/her as a case (which is likely), that information would have had to be removed before the exposure assessors reviewed the records.
If blinding was not possible, which sometimes happens, the reviewers marked "NA" in the assessment tool and explained the potential for bias.
Question 13. Statistical analysis
Were key potential confounding variables measured and adjusted for, such as by statistical adjustment for baseline differences? Investigators often use logistic regression or other regression methods to account for the influence of variables not of interest.
This is a key issue in case-controlled studies; statistical analyses need to control for potential confounders, in contrast to RCTs in which the randomization process controls for potential confounders. In the analysis, investigators need to control for all key factors that may be associated with both the exposure of interest and the outcome and are not of interest to the research question.
A study of the relationship between smoking and CVD events illustrates this point. Such a study needs to control for age, gender, and body weight; all are associated with smoking and CVD events. Well-done case-control studies control for multiple potential confounders.
Matching is a technique used to improve study efficiency and control for known confounders. For example, in the study of smoking and CVD events, an investigator might identify cases that have had a heart attack or stroke and then select controls of similar age, gender, and body weight to the cases. For case-control studies, it is important that if matching was performed during the selection or recruitment process, the variables used as matching criteria (e.g., age, gender, race) should be controlled for in the analysis.
General Guidance for Determining the Overall Quality Rating of Case-Controlled Studies
NHLBI designed the questions in the assessment tool to help reviewers focus on the key concepts for evaluating a study's internal validity, not to use as a list from which to add up items to judge a study's quality.
Internal validity for case-control studies is the extent to which the associations between disease and exposure reported in the study can truly be attributed to the exposure being evaluated rather than to flaws in the design or conduct of the study. In other words, what is ability of the study to draw associative conclusions about the effects of the exposures on outcomes? Any such flaws can increase the risk of bias.
In critical appraising a study, the following factors need to be considered: risk of potential for selection bias, information bias, measurement bias, or confounding (the mixture of exposures that one cannot tease out from each other). Examples of confounding include co-interventions, differences at baseline in patient characteristics, and other issues addressed in the questions above. High risk of bias translates to a poor quality rating; low risk of bias translates to a good quality rating. Again, the greater the risk of bias, the lower the quality rating of the study.
In addition, the more attention in the study design to issues that can help determine whether there is a causal relationship between the outcome and the exposure, the higher the quality of the study. These include exposures occurring prior to outcomes, evaluation of a dose-response gradient, accuracy of measurement of both exposure and outcome, sufficient timeframe to see an effect, and appropriate control for confounding–all concepts reflected in the tool.
If a study has a "fatal flaw," then risk of bias is significant; therefore, the study is deemed to be of poor quality. An example of a fatal flaw in case-control studies is a lack of a consistent standard process used to identify cases and controls.
Generally, when reviewers evaluated a study, they did not see a "fatal flaw," but instead found some risk of bias. By focusing on the concepts underlying the questions in the quality assessment tool, reviewers examined the potential for bias in the study. For any box checked "no," reviewers asked, "What is the potential risk of bias resulting from this flaw in study design or execution?" That is, did this factor lead to doubt about the results reported in the study or the ability of the study to accurately assess an association between exposure and outcome?
By examining questions in the assessment tool, reviewers were best able to assess the potential for bias in a study. Specific rules were not useful, as each study had specific nuances. In addition, being familiar with the key concepts helped reviewers assess the studies. Examples of studies rated good, fair, and poor were useful, yet each study had to be assessed on its own.
Last Updated March 2014