An Introduction to Sensitivity Analysis for Unobserved Confounding in Nonexperimental Prevention Research

Weiwei Liu, S. Janet Kuramoto, Elizabeth A. Stuart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Despite the fact that randomization is the gold standard for estimating causal relationships, many questions in prevention science are often left to be answered through nonexperimental studies because randomization is either infeasible or unethical. While methods such as propensity score matching can adjust for observed confounding, unobserved confounding is the Achilles heel of most nonexperimental studies. This paper describes and illustrates seven sensitivity analysis techniques that assess the sensitivity of study results to an unobserved confounder. These methods were categorized into two groups to reflect differences in their conceptualization of sensitivity analysis, as well as their targets of interest. As a motivating example, we examine the sensitivity of the association between maternal suicide and offspring's risk for suicide attempt hospitalization. While inferences differed slightly depending on the type of sensitivity analysis conducted, overall, the association between maternal suicide and offspring's hospitalization for suicide attempt was found to be relatively robust to an unobserved confounder. The ease of implementation and the insight these analyses provide underscores sensitivity analysis techniques as an important tool for nonexperimental studies. The implementation of sensitivity analysis can help increase confidence in results from nonexperimental studies and better inform prevention researchers and policy makers regarding potential intervention targets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)570-580
Number of pages11
JournalPrevention Science
Volume14
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2013

Keywords

  • Causal inference
  • Sensitivity analysis
  • Suicide prevention
  • Unobserved confounding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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