Use of relative and absolute effect measures in reporting health inequalities: structured review


OBJECTIVE: To examine the frequency of reporting of absolute and relative effect measures in health inequalities research. DESIGN: Structured review of selected general medical and public health journals. DATA SOURCES: 344 articles published during 2009 in American Journal of Epidemiology, American Journal of Public Health, BMJ, Epidemiology, International Journal of Epidemiology, JAMA, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Social Science and Medicine. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Frequency and proportion of studies reporting absolute effect measures, relative effect measures, or both in abstract and full text; availability of absolute risks in studies reporting only relative effect measures. RESULTS: 40% (138/344) of articles reported a measure of effect in the abstract; among these, 88% (122/138) reported only a relative measure, 9% (13/138) reported only an absolute measure, and 2% (3/138) reported both. 75% (258/344) of all articles reported only relative measures in the full text; among these, 46% (119/258) contained no information on absolute baseline risks that would facilitate calculation of absolute effect measures. 18% (61/344) of all articles reported only absolute measures in the full text, and 7% (25/344) reported both absolute and relative measures. These results were consistent across journals, exposures, and outcomes. CONCLUSIONS: Health inequalities are most commonly reported using only relative measures of effect, which may influence readers' judgments of the magnitude, direction, significance, and implications of reported health inequalities.

Sam Harper
Sam Harper
Associate Professor of Epidemiology

My research interests include impact evaluation, reproducible research, and social epidemiology.

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