A subgroup of clinical trial subjects identified by baseline characteristics is a proper subgroup while a subgroup determined by post randomization events or measures is an improper subgroup. Both types of subgroups are often analyzed in clinical trial papers. Yet, the extensive scrutiny of subgroup analyses has almost exclusively attended to the former. The analysis of improper subgroups thereby not only flourishes in numerous disguised ways but also does so without a corresponding awareness of its pitfalls. Comparisons of the grade of angina in a heart disease trial, for example, usually include only the survivors. This paper highlights some of the distinct ways in which outcome based subgroup analysis occurs, describes the hazards associated with it, and proposes a simple alternative approach to counter its analytic bias.
Data from six published trials show that outcome based subgroup analysis, like proper subgroup analysis, may be performed in a post-hoc fashion, overdone, selectively reported, and over interpreted. Six hypothetical trial scenarios illustrate the forms of hidden bias related to it. That bias can, however, be addressed by assigning clinically appropriate scores to the usually excluded subjects and performing an analysis that includes all the randomized subjects.
A greater level of awareness about the practice and pitfalls of outcome based subgroup analysis is needed. When required, such an analysis should maintain the integrity of randomization. This issue needs greater practical and methodologic attention than has been accorded to it thus far.