Guidance from key organisations on exploring, confirming and interpreting subgroup effects of medical treatments: a scoping review

Wijn SRW, Rovers MM, Le LH, Belias M, Hoogland J, IntHout J, Debray T, Reitsma JB

OBJECTIVES: With the increasing interest in personalised medicine, the use of subgroup analyses is likely to increase. Subgroup analyses are challenging and often misused, possibly leading to false interpretations of the effect. It remains unclear to what extent key organisations warn for such pitfalls and translate current methodological research to detect these effects into research guidelines. The aim of this scoping review is to determine and evaluate the current guidance used by organisations for exploring, confirming and interpreting subgroup effects.

DESIGN: Scoping review.

ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA: We identified four types of key stakeholder organisations: industry, health technology assessment organisations (HTA), academic/non-profit research organisations and regulatory bodies. After literature search and expert consultation, we identified international and national organisations of each type. For each organisation that was identified, we searched for official research guidance documents and contacted the organisation for additional guidance.

RESULTS: Twenty-seven (45%) of the 60 organisations that we included had relevant research guidance documents. We observed large differences between organisation types: 18% (n=2) of the industry organisations, 64% (n=9) of the HTA organisations, 38% (n=8) of academic/non-profit research organisations and 57% (n=8) of regulatory bodies provided guidance documents. The majority of the documents (n=33, 63%) mentioned one or more challenges in subgroup analyses, such as false positive findings or ecological bias with variations across the organisation types. Statistical recommendations were less common (n=19, 37%) and often limited to a formal test of interaction.

CONCLUSIONS: Almost half of the organisations included in this scoping review provided guidance on subgroup effect research in their guidelines. However, there were large differences between organisations in the amount and level of detail of their guidance. Effort is required to translate and integrate research findings on subgroup analysis to practical guidelines for decision making and to reduce the differences between organisations and organisation types.

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Cite as: Wijn SRW, Rovers MM, Le LH, Belias M, Hoogland J, IntHout J, Debray T, Reitsma JB. Guidance from key organisations on exploring, confirming and interpreting subgroup effects of medical treatments: a scoping review. BMJ Open 2019, volume 9, page(s): e028751. DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028751.