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Causal inference and effect estimation using observational data

Published: 6 September 2022
 by  BMJ

Abstract: Observational studies aiming to estimate causal effects often rely on conceptual frameworks that are unfamiliar to many researchers and practitioners. We provide a clear, structured overview of key concepts and terms, intended as a starting point for readers unfamiliar with the causal inference literature. First, we introduce theoretical frameworks underlying causal effect estimation methods: the counterfactual theory of causation, the potential outcomes framework, structural equations and directed acyclic graphs. Second, we define the most common causal effect estimands, and the issues of effect measure modification, interaction and mediation (direct and indirect effects). Third, we define the assumptions required to estimate causal effects: exchangeability, positivity, consistency and non-interference. Fourth, we define and explain biases that arise when attempting to estimate causal effects, including confounding, collider bias, selection bias and measurement bias. Finally, we describe common methods and study designs for causal effect estimation, including covariate adjustment, G-methods and natural experiment methods.
Keywords: methods / research design / study design / epidemiology / statistics

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