Informing Healthcare Decisions with Observational Research Assessing Causal Effect

Andrea S. Gershon, Peter K. Lindenauer, Kevin C. Wilson, Louise Rose, Allan J. Walkey, Mohsen Sadatsafavi, Kevin J. Anstrom, David H. Au, Bruce G. Bender, M. Alan Brookhart, Raed A. Dweik, Mei Lan K. Han, Min J. Joo, Valery Lavergne, Anuj B. Mehta, Marc Miravitlles, Richard A. Mularski, Nicolas Roche, Eyal Oren, Kristin A. RiekertNoah C. Schoenberg, Therese A. Stukel, Curtis H. Weiss, Hannah Wunsch, Joel J. Africk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Rationale: Decisions in medicine are made on the basis of knowledge and reasoning, often in shared conversations with patients and families in consideration of clinical practice guideline recommendations, individual preferences, and individual goals. Observational studies can provide valuable knowledge to inform guidelines, decisions, and policy. Objectives: The American Thoracic Society (ATS) created a multidisciplinary ad hoc committee to develop a research statement to clarify the role of observational studies—alongside randomized controlled trials (RCTs)—in informing clinical decisions in pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine. Methods: The committee examined the strengths of observational studies assessing causal effects, how they complement RCTs, factors that impact observational study quality, perceptions of observational research, and, finally, the practicalities of incorporating observational research into ATS clinical practice guidelines. Measurements and Main Results: There are strengths and weakness of observational studies as well as RCTs. Observational studies can provide evidence in representative and diverse patient populations. Quality observational studies should be sought in the development of ATS clinical practice guidelines, and medical decision-making in general, when 1) no RCTs are identified or RCTs are appraised as being of low- or very low-quality (replacement); 2) RCTs are of moderate quality because of indirectness, imprecision, or inconsistency, and observational studies mitigate the reason that RCT evidence was downgraded (complementary); or 3) RCTs do not provide evidence for outcomes that a guideline committee considers essential for decision-making (e.g., rare or long-term outcomes; “sequential”). Conclusions: Observational studies should be considered in developing clinical practice guidelines and in making clinical decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14-23
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican journal of respiratory and critical care medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2021


  • Evidence synthesis
  • Observational studies
  • Practice guidelines

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine
  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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