A comparison of full model specification and backward elimination of potential confounders when estimating marginal and conditional causal effects on binary outcomes from observational data

Kim Luijken, Rolf H.H. Groenwold, Maarten van Smeden, Susanne Strohmaier, Georg Heinze*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

A common view in epidemiology is that automated confounder selection methods, such as backward elimination, should be avoided as they can lead to biased effect estimates and underestimation of their variance. Nevertheless, backward elimination remains regularly applied. We investigated if and under which conditions causal effect estimation in observational studies can improve by using backward elimination on a prespecified set of potential confounders. An expression was derived that quantifies how variable omission relates to bias and variance of effect estimators. Additionally, 3960 scenarios were defined and investigated by simulations comparing bias and mean squared error (MSE) of the conditional log odds ratio, log(cOR), and the marginal log risk ratio, log(mRR), between full models including all prespecified covariates and backward elimination of these covariates. Applying backward elimination resulted in a mean bias of 0.03 for log(cOR) and 0.02 for log(mRR), compared to 0.56 and 0.52 for log(cOR) and log(mRR), respectively, for a model without any covariate adjustment, and no bias for the full model. In less than 3% of the scenarios considered, the MSE of the log(cOR) or log(mRR) was slightly lower (max 3%) when backward elimination was used compared to the full model. When an initial set of potential confounders can be specified based on background knowledge, there is minimal added value of backward elimination. We advise not to use it and otherwise to provide ample arguments supporting its use.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2100237
JournalBiometrical Journal
Volume66
Issue number1
Early online date12 May 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024

Keywords

  • backward elimination
  • causal inference
  • confounder selection

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