causal inference with case-only studies in injury epidemiology research

Purpose of Review

We review the application and limitations of two implementations of the “case-only design” in injury epidemiology with example analyses of Fatality Analysis Reporting System data.

Recent Findings

The term “case-only design” covers a variety of epidemiologic designs; here, two implementations of the design are reviewed: (1) studies to uncover etiological heterogeneity and (2) studies to measure exposure effect modification. These two designs produce results that require different interpretations and rely upon different assumptions. The key assumption of case-only designs for exposure effect modification, the more commonly used of the two designs, does not commonly hold for injuries and so results from studies using this design cannot be interpreted. Case-only designs to identify etiological heterogeneity in injury risk are interpretable but only when the case-series is conceptualized as arising from an underlying cohort.


The results of studies using case-only designs are commonly misinterpreted in the injury literature.

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