Assessing regression to the mean effects in health care initiatives

BMC: September 28, 2013

Background

Interventions targeting individuals classified as “high-risk” have become common-place in health care. High-risk may represent outlier values on utilization, cost, or clinical measures. Typically, such individuals are invited to participate in an intervention intended to reduce their level of risk, and after a period of time, a follow-up measurement is taken. However, individuals initially identified by their outlier values will likely have lower values on re-measurement in the absence of an intervention. This statistical phenomenon is known as “regression to the mean” (RTM) and often leads to an inaccurate conclusion that the intervention caused the effect. Concerns about RTM are rarely raised in connection with most health care interventions, and it is uncommon to find evaluators who estimate its effect. This may be due to lack of awareness, cognitive biases that may cause people to systematically misinterpret RTM effects by creating (erroneous) explanations to account for it, or by design. Read more