Estimating the Effect of Targeted Screening Strategies: An Application to Colonoscopy and Colorectal Cancer

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Screening behavior depends on previous screening history and family members’ behaviors, which can act as both confounders and intermediate variables on a causal pathway from screening to disease risk. Conventional analyses that adjust for these variables can lead to incorrect inferences about the causal effect of screening if high-risk individuals are more likely to be screened. Analyzing the data in a manner that treats screening as randomized conditional on covariates allows causal parameters to be estimated; inverse probability weighting based on propensity of exposure scores is one such method considered here. I simulated family data under plausible models for the underlying disease process and for screening behavior to assess the performance of alternative methods of analysis and whether a targeted screening approach based on individuals’ risk factors would lead to a greater reduction in cancer incidence in the population than a uniform screening policy. Simulation results indicate that there can be a substantial underestimation of the effect of screening on subsequent cancer risk when using conventional analysis approaches, which is avoided by using inverse probability weighting. A large case–control study of colonoscopy and colorectal cancer from Germany shows a strong protective effect of screening, but inverse probability weighting makes this effect even stronger. Targeted screening approaches based on either fixed risk factors or family history yield somewhat greater reductions in cancer incidence with fewer screens needed to prevent one cancer than population-wide approaches, but the differences may not be large enough to justify the additional effort required. See video abstract at,

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