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Comment & Response
April 2018

Lower Cancer Incidence—Warfarin Effect or Immortal Time Bias?

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Department of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill
JAMA Intern Med. 2018;178(4):584-585. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.0367

To the Editor In their Original Investigation published in a recent issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, Haaland and colleagues1 reported that warfarin users had a lower cancer incidence than nonusers in a Norwegian cohort. Despite efforts to limit immortal time bias, their findings might still be biased partially due to residual immortal time.

Immortal time refers to a period during which a study outcome could not have occurred. Bias occurs when this period is mishandled in the study design or analysis.2 We identified 2 distinct sources of residual immortal time in this study. First, the authors required a minimal exposure of 6 months for eligible warfarin users, during which individuals could not have had a cancer diagnosis or died. This 6-month exposure time is immortal; including it in the accrual of person-time for warfarin users artificially lowers cancer incidence compared with nonusers who were at risk for cancer since the start of follow-up. Haaland and colleagues1 attempted to limit immortal time bias by assigning person-time accruing after January 1, 2006, but prior to meeting the warfarin user criterion as unexposed person-time. However, as median treatment duration was 4.7 years and 25% or more of all patients had follow-up more than 7 years, it is possible that a non-negligible portion of warfarin users started treatment before 2006 and contributed immortal follow-up time prior to January 1, 2006. Second, warfarin users also included persons who received a warfarin prescription at least 2 years before any cancer diagnosis.1 Consequently, eligible warfarin users who later received a cancer diagnosis must have been cancer free for 2 or more years. By defining warfarin exposure based on future outcome status, additional immortal time was likely added to the analysis.

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