A trial emulation approach for policy evaluations with group-level longitudinal data

11/11/2020
by   Eli Ben-Michael, et al.
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To limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments across the world implemented extraordinary physical distancing policies, such as stay-at-home orders, and numerous studies aim to estimate their effects. Many statistical and econometric methods, such as difference-in-differences, leverage repeated measurements and variation in timing to estimate policy effects, including in the COVID-19 context. While these methods are less common in epidemiology, epidemiologic researchers are well accustomed to handling similar complexities in studies of individual-level interventions. "Target trial emulation" emphasizes the need to carefully design a non-experimental study in terms of inclusion and exclusion criteria, covariates, exposure definition, and outcome measurement – and the timing of those variables. We argue that policy evaluations using group-level longitudinal ("panel") data need to take a similar careful approach to study design, which we refer to as "policy trial emulation." This is especially important when intervention timing varies across jurisdictions; the main idea is to construct target trials separately for each "treatment cohort" (states that implement the policy at the same time) and then aggregate. We present a stylized analysis of the impact of state-level stay-at-home orders on total coronavirus cases. We argue that estimates from panel methods – with the right data and careful modeling and diagnostics – can help add to our understanding of many policies, though doing so is often challenging.

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