Invited Commentary: Estimating Population Impact in the Presence of Competing Events

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The formal approach in the field of causal inference has enabled epidemiologists to clarify several complications that arise when estimating the effect of an intervention on a health outcome of interest. When the outcome is a failure time or longitudinal process, researchers must often deal with competing events. In this issue of the Journal, Picciotto et al. (Am J Epidemiol. 2015;181(8):563–570) use structural nested failure time models to assess potential population effects of hypothetical interventions and censor competing events. In the present commentary, we discuss 2 interpretations that result from treating competing events as censored observations and how they relate to measures of public health impact. We also comment on 2 alternative approaches for handling competing events: an inverse probability weighting estimator of the survivor average causal effect and the parametric g-formula, which can be used to estimate a functional of the subdistribution of the event of interest. We argue that careful consideration of the tradeoff between the interpretation of the parameters from each approach and the assumptions required to estimate these parameters should guide researchers on the various ways to handle competing events in epidemiologic research.

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