Assessing the ability of an instrumental variable causal forest algorithm to personalize treatment evidence using observational data: the case of early surgery for shoulder fracture


Abstract Background Comparative effectiveness research (CER) using observational databases has been suggested to obtain personalized evidence of treatment effectiveness. Inferential difficulties remain using traditional CER approaches especially related to designating patients to reference classes a priori. A novel Instrumental Variable Causal Forest Algorithm (IV-CFA) has the potential to provide personalized evidence using observational data without designating reference classes a priori, but the consistency of the evidence when varying key algorithm parameters remains unclear. We investigated the consistency of IV-CFA estimates through application to a database of Medicare beneficiaries with proximal humerus fractures (PHFs) that previously revealed heterogeneity in the effects of early surgery using instrumental variable estimators. Methods IV-CFA was used to estimate patient-specific early surgery effects on both beneficial and detrimental outcomes using different combinations of algorithm parameters and estimate variation was assessed for a population of 72,751 fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries with PHFs in 2011. Classification and regression trees (CART) were applied to these estimates to create ex-post reference classes and the consistency of these classes were assessed. Two-stage least squares (2SLS) estimators were applied to representative ex-post reference classes to scrutinize the estimates relative to known 2SLS properties. Results IV-CFA uncovered substantial early surgery effect heterogeneity across PHF patients, but estimates for individual patients varied with algorithm parameters. CART applied to these estimates revealed ex-post reference classes consistent across algorithm parameters. 2SLS estimates showed that ex-post reference classes containing older, frailer patients with more comorbidities, and lower utilizers of healthcare were less likely to benefit and more likely to have detriments from higher rates of early surgery. Conclusions IV-CFA provides an illuminating method to uncover ex-post reference classes of patients based on treatment effects using observational data with a strong instrumental variable. Interpretation of treatment effect estimates within each ex-post reference class using traditional CER methods remains conditional on the extent of measured information in the data.

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