Statistical approaches to identify subgroups in meta-analysis of individual participant data: a simulation study

Belias M, Rovers MM, Reitsma JB, Debray TPA, IntHout J

Background: Individual participant data meta-analysis (IPD-MA) is considered the gold standard for investigating subgroup effects. Frequently used regression-based approaches to detect subgroups in IPD-MA are: meta-regression, per-subgroup meta-analysis (PS-MA), meta-analysis of interaction terms (MA-IT), naive one-stage IPD-MA (ignoring potential study-level confounding), and centred one-stage IPD-MA (accounting for potential study-level confounding). Clear guidance on the analyses is lacking and clinical researchers may use approaches with suboptimal efficiency to investigate subgroup effects in an IPD setting. Therefore, our aim is to overview and compare the aforementioned methods, and provide recommendations over which should be preferred.

Methods: We conducted a simulation study where we generated IPD of randomised trials and varied the magnitude of subgroup effect (0, 25, 50%; relative reduction), between-study treatment effect heterogeneity (none, medium, large), ecological bias (none, quantitative, qualitative), sample size (50,100,200), and number of trials (5,10) for binary, continuous and time-to-event outcomes. For each scenario, we assessed the power, false positive rate (FPR) and bias of aforementioned five approaches.

Results: Naive and centred IPD-MA yielded the highest power, whilst preserving acceptable FPR around the nominal 5% in all scenarios. Centred IPD-MA showed slightly less biased estimates than naïve IPD-MA. Similar results were obtained for MA-IT, except when analysing binary outcomes (where it yielded less power and FPR <5%). PS-MA showed similar power as MA-IT in non-heterogeneous scenarios, but power collapsed as heterogeneity increased, and decreased even more in the presence of ecological bias. PS-MA suffered from too high FPRs in non-heterogeneous settings and showed biased estimates in all scenarios. Meta-regression showed poor power (<20%) in all scenarios and completely biased results in settings with qualitative ecological bias.

Conclusions: Our results indicate that subgroup detection in IPD-MA requires careful modelling. Naive and centred IPD-MA performed equally well, but due to less bias of the estimates in the presence of ecological bias, we recommend the latter.

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