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Detecting Moderator Effects Using Subgroup Analyses

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Abstract

In the analysis of prevention and intervention studies, it is often important to investigate whether treatment effects vary among subgroups of patients defined by individual characteristics. These “subgroup analyses” can provide information about how best to use a new prevention or intervention program. However, subgroup analyses can be misleading if they test data-driven hypotheses, employ inappropriate statistical methods, or fail to account for multiple testing. These problems have led to a general suspicion of findings from subgroup analyses. This article discusses sound methods for conducting subgroup analyses to detect moderators. Multiple authors have argued that, to assess whether a treatment effect varies across subgroups defined by patient characteristics, analyses should be based on tests for interaction rather than treatment comparisons within the subgroups. We discuss the concept of heterogeneity and its dependence on the metric used to describe treatment effects. We discuss issues of multiple comparisons related to subgroup analyses and the importance of considering multiplicity in the interpretation of results. We also discuss the types of questions that would lead to subgroup analyses and how different scientific goals may affect the study at the design stage. Finally, we discuss subgroup analyses based on post-baseline factors and the complexity associated with this type of subgroup analysis.

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Acknowledgment

We dedicate this paper to our friend and colleague, Dr. Stephen W. Lagakos, who inspired the work and provided valuable insights and discussions on many aspects of subgroup analyses. We are grateful to Drs. Robert J. McMahon, David P. Mackinnon, Tyler VanderWeele, and three reviewers for their comments, which have improved the paper. This work was in part supported by grant AI24643 from the National Institutes of Health.

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Wang, R., Ware, J.H. Detecting Moderator Effects Using Subgroup Analyses. Prev Sci 14, 111–120 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-011-0221-x

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