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Home > Standards & Guidances > Methodological Guide

ENCePP Guide on Methodological Standards in Pharmacoepidemiology Unmeasured confounding

Large healthcare utilisation databases are frequently used to analyse unintended effects of prescription drugs and biologics. Confounders that require detailed information on clinical parameters, lifestyle or over-the-counter medications are often not measured in such datasets, causing residual confounding bias. Using directed acyclic graphs to detect limitations of traditional regression in longitudinal studies (Int J Public Health 2010;55:701-3) reviews confounding and intermediate effects in longitudinal data and introduces causal graphs to understand the relationships between the variables in an epidemiological study.


Sensitivity analysis and external adjustment for unmeasured confounders in epidemiologic database studies of therapeutics (Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf 2006;15(5):291-303) provides a systematic approach to sensitivity analyses to investigate the impact of residual confounding in pharmacoepidemiological studies that use healthcare utilisation databases. In the article, four basic approaches to sensitivity analysis were identified: (1) sensitivity analyses based on an array of informed assumptions; (2) analyses to identify the strength of residual confounding that would be necessary to explain an observed drug-outcome association; (3) external adjustment of a drug-outcome association given additional information on single binary confounders from survey data using algebraic solutions; (4) external adjustment considering the joint distribution of multiple confounders of any distribution from external sources of information using propensity score calibration. The paper concludes that sensitivity analyses and external adjustments can improve our understanding of the effects of drugs in epidemiological database studies. With the availability of easy-to-apply spreadsheets (for download, e.g. at, sensitivity analyses should be used more frequently, substituting qualitative discussions of residual confounding.

The amount of bias in exposure-effect estimates that can plausibly occur due to residual or unmeasured confounding has been debated. The impact of residual and unmeasured confounding in epidemiologic studies: a simulation study (Am J Epidemiol 2007;166:646–55) considers the extent and patterns of bias in estimates of exposure-outcome associations that can result from residual or unmeasured confounding, when there is no true association between the exposure and the outcome. With plausible assumptions about residual and unmeasured confounding, effect sizes of the magnitude frequently reported in observational epidemiological studies can be generated. This study also highlights the need to perform sensitivity analyses to assess whether unmeasured and residual confounding are likely problems. Another important finding of this study was that when confounding factors (measured or unmeasured) are interrelated (e.g. in situations of confounding by indication), adjustment for a few factors can almost completely eliminate confounding.



Individual Chapters:


1. General aspects of study protocol

2. Research question

3. Approaches to data collection

3.1. Primary data collection

3.2. Secondary use of data

3.3. Research networks

3.4. Spontaneous report database

3.5. Using data from social media and electronic devices as a data source

3.5.1. General considerations

4. Study design and methods

4.1. General considerations

4.2. Challenges and lessons learned

4.2.1. Definition and validation of drug exposure, outcomes and covariates Assessment of exposure Assessment of outcomes Assessment of covariates Validation

4.2.2. Bias and confounding Choice of exposure risk windows Time-related bias Immortal time bias Other forms of time-related bias Confounding by indication Protopathic bias Surveillance bias Unmeasured confounding

4.2.3. Methods to handle bias and confounding New-user designs Case-only designs Disease risk scores Propensity scores Instrumental variables Prior event rate ratios Handling time-dependent confounding in the analysis

4.2.4. Effect modification

4.3. Ecological analyses and case-population studies

4.4. Hybrid studies

4.4.1. Pragmatic trials

4.4.2. Large simple trials

4.4.3. Randomised database studies

4.5. Systematic review and meta-analysis

4.6. Signal detection methodology and application

5. The statistical analysis plan

5.1. General considerations

5.2. Statistical plan

5.3. Handling of missing data

6. Quality management

7. Communication

7.1. Principles of communication

7.2. Guidelines on communication of studies

8. Legal context

8.1. Ethical conduct, patient and data protection

8.2. Pharmacovigilance legislation

8.3. Reporting of adverse events/reactions

9. Specific topics

9.1. Comparative effectiveness research

9.1.1. Introduction

9.1.2. General aspects

9.1.3. Prominent issues in CER Randomised clinical trials vs. observational studies Use of electronic healthcare databases Bias and confounding in observational CER

9.2. Vaccine safety and effectiveness

9.2.1. Vaccine safety General aspects Signal detection Signal refinement Hypothesis testing studies Meta-analyses Studies on vaccine safety in special populations

9.2.2. Vaccine effectiveness Definitions Traditional cohort and case-control studies Screening method Indirect cohort (Broome) method Density case-control design Test negative design Case coverage design Impact assessment Methods to study waning immunity

9.3. Design and analysis of pharmacogenetic studies

9.3.1. Introduction

9.3.2. Identification of genetic variants

9.3.3. Study designs

9.3.4. Data collection

9.3.5. Data analysis

9.3.6. Reporting

9.3.7. Clinical practice guidelines

9.3.8. Resources

Annex 1. Guidance on conducting systematic revies and meta-analyses of completed comparative pharmacoepidemiological studies of safety outcomes