Flawed conclusions on the Västerbotten Intervention Program by San Sebastian et .al
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An evaluation of Västerbotten Intervention Programme (VIP) was recently conducted by San Sebastian et al. (BMC Public Health 19:202, 2019). Evaluation of health care interventions of this kind require 1) an understanding of both the design and the nature of the intervention, 2) correct definition of the target population, and 3) careful choice of the appropriate evaluation method. In this correspondence, we review the approach used by San Sebastian et al. as relates to these three criteria. Within this framework, we suggest important explanations for why the conclusions drawn by these authors contradict a large body of research on the effectiveness of the VIP.
KeywordsPrevention Community intervention Evaluation CVD
Ischemic heart disease
Interrupted time series
Västerbotten Intervention Programme
The effectiveness of the community-based prevention programmes implemented in a real-world setting is a subject of a continuous scientific and political debate. One of the reasons is the difficulty of evaluating such programmes .
San Sebastian et al. identify the intervention as having occurred in a single year (1994), which is incorrect
San Sebastian et al. include subjects who were not exposed to the VIP as being in the treatment group
While it is true that the entire 40–60 year old population of the county is theoretically eligible for VIP, the actual enrolment into the programme is phased in over time, with primary care centres only inviting those who turn exactly 40, 50 or 60 years old in each specific year. Therefore, 10 years elapsed before the entire eligible population was fully exposed to the intervention.
In their study, San Sebastian et al.  analysed the effect of the intervention on all individuals aged 40–74 between 1994 and 2013. However, this approach assesses treatment effect in many subjects who have never been eligible for the VIP. For example, an individual who was 74 in 1995 would have been between 40 and 60 years old between 1961 and 1981, which means he/she spent this entire period without being exposed to the intervention. Clearly, this is not a subject for whom treatment effect should be assessed.
San Sebastian et al. use interrupted time series (ITS) as an analytical model
ITS is designed for evaluating interventions where 1) there is a clearly defined cut point corresponding to the time the intervention is implemented  and 2) the effects are expected to be felt relatively quickly after implementation, or after a clearly defined lag time . Neither of these two conditions apply to the VIP.
First, both the gradual dissemination of the VIP between 1985 and 1993 and its time-lapsed recruitment strategy do not fit the scenario of a well-defined intervention cut point. Therefore, the arbitrary cut off year of 1994 chosen by San Sebastian et al. to represent the start of the intervention does not conform to the actual design of the study.
Second, it is well accepted throughout the public health community that interventions aimed at prevention do not exert their effects shortly after implementation. Rather, they evolve slowly over time. While VIP participation rates have been high  with only small social selection bias, it is not realistic to expect an immediate population effect of VIP on IHD and total mortality among the target population (participants + non-participants), the majority of whom are below 60 years of age.
San Sebastian et al. find: “no evidence for a more positive development in Västerbotten following the implementation of the VIP” and conclude that: “the data do not support that the intervention has contributed to an additional reduction on IHD morbidity and mortality, above and beyond that which is already seen in neighbouring counties without similar programs”. To support their findings, the authors refer to publications similarly critical to community-based prevention programmes. However, grouping the VIP together with other prevention programs that use different strategies, structure and focus (such as The Scottish keep well health checks, NHS health checks and the Danish RCT Inter99) completely obscures these differences. Moreover, San Sebastian findings contradict both previous evaluations of the VIP [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13], as well as evaluation of similar Swedish programmes  and evaluation of VIP by other independent groups .
In our previous evaluation of the VIP , the data were analysed according to an intention-to-treat strategy that identified a target group of participants as well as eligible non-participants. For the purpose of this correspondence, we took a closer look at the possible impact on the general population. A dramatic decrease in all-cause mortality could be observed both in Västerbotten and neighboring counties during the past 45 years, which, to a large extent, can be attributed to a reduction in cardiovascular diseases. Although the time trends are similar, it is evident that Västerbotten has performed better. While, for men age and time-standardized mortality in Västerbotten in the 70s was 4.5% higher and in the 80s 7.2% higher than the general Swedish male population (8.7 and 9.5% for women), it has been well below the national average since the mid-90s. Neither of the neighboring counties of Västernorrland or Norrbotten display this pattern (unpublished data).
Limitation of our critique
The authors behind this correspondence do not constitute a neutral third party. Rather, we are the actual medical practitioners and researchers who have implemented or evaluated the VIP. Some of us, who have been with the program since its beginning, have devoted more than 30 years to this endeavour.
To ensure the quality of the programme, we have always welcomed new approaches to evaluating it and studying the underlying factors behind the effectiveness of prevention methods in general, particularly by independent groups. To facilitate this, we have made VIP data available through various collaborations, including the Ageing and Living Conditions Programme , SimSam  and the Northern Sweden Health and Disease Study  to name a few. In these cases however, we expect that researchers will devote sufficient time to understanding the programme design and the nature of the intervention. This is a key principle of the evaluation of health care interventions .
As explained above, in the recently published evaluation of the VIP , the authors did not consider some of the complexities of the design of the VIP and it is on this basis that we question their methodology. This may be the reason that the conclusions of those authors are contradictory to a consensus of previous evaluations of the VIP.
We thank Paul Jenkins for editing and language review.
All authors have contributed to the conception and formulation of the correspondence. MN drafted the first version of the manuscript, SW, HS, NN, LW, KB, LN and GL contributed regarding the methodological and statistical examination while YB was responsible for further drafts. All authors provided feedback on all drafts, read and approved the final manuscript.
We received no funding for the development of this manuscript.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Consent for publication
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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