Published in

Wiley, Research Synthesis Methods, 1(15), p. 61-72, 2023

DOI: 10.1002/jrsm.1671



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Causally interpretable meta‐analysis: Clearly defined causal effects and two case studies

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AbstractMeta‐analysis is commonly used to combine results from multiple clinical trials, but traditional meta‐analysis methods do not refer explicitly to a population of individuals to whom the results apply and it is not clear how to use their results to assess a treatment's effect for a population of interest. We describe recently‐introduced causally interpretable meta‐analysis methods and apply their treatment effect estimators to two individual‐participant data sets. These estimators transport estimated treatment effects from studies in the meta‐analysis to a specified target population using the individuals' potentially effect‐modifying covariates. We consider different regression and weighting methods within this approach and compare the results to traditional aggregated‐data meta‐analysis methods. In our applications, certain versions of the causally interpretable methods performed somewhat better than the traditional methods, but the latter generally did well. The causally interpretable methods offer the most promise when covariates modify treatment effects and our results suggest that traditional methods work well when there is little effect heterogeneity. The causally interpretable approach gives meta‐analysis an appealing theoretical framework by relating an estimator directly to a specific population and lays a solid foundation for future developments.