Immortal time bias in pharmacoepidemiological studies on cancer patient survival: empirical illustration for beta-blocker use in four cancers with different prognosis

Immortal time bias (ITB) is still seen frequently in medical literature. However, not much is known about this bias in the field of cancer (pharmaco-)epidemiology. In context of a hypothetical beneficial beta-blocker use among cancer patients, we amed to demonstrate the magnitude of ITB among 9876 prostate, colorectal, lung and pancreatic cancer patients diagnosed between 1998 and 2011, which were selected from a database linkage of the Netherlands Cancer Registry and the PHARMO Database Network.Hazard ratios (HR) and 95% confidence intervals from three ITB scenarios, defining exposure at a defined point after diagnosis (model 1), at any point after diagnosis (model 2) and as multiple exposures after diagnosis (model 3), were calculated to investigate the association between beta-blockers and cancer prognosis using Cox proportional hazards regression. Results were compared to unbiased estimates derived from the Mantel-Byar model. Ignoring ITB led to substantial smaller HRs for beta-blocker useproposing a significant protective association in all cancer types [e.g. HR 0.18 (0.07-0.43) for pancreatic cancer in model 1], whereas estimates derived from the Mantel-Byar model were mainly suggesting no association [e.g. HR 1.10 (0.84-1.44)]. The magnitude of bias was consistently larger among cancer types with worse prognosis [overall median HR differences between all scenarios in model 1 and Mantel-Byar model of 0.56 (prostate), 0.72 (colorectal), 0.77 (lung) and 0.85 (pancreas)]. In conclusion, ITB led to spurious beneficial associations of beta-blocker use among cancer patients. The magnitude of ITB depends on the duration of excluded immortal time and the prognosis of each cancer.

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