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The importance and pitfalls of correlational science in palliative care research

Klepstad, Påla,b; Kaasa, Steinc,d

Current Opinion in Supportive and Palliative Care: December 2012 - Volume 6 - Issue 4 - p 508–513
doi: 10.1097/SPC.0b013e32835a0c70
CHALLENGES IN CONDUCTING CLINICAL TRIALS IN SUPPORTIVE AND PALLIATIVE CARE: Edited by Amy P. Abernethy, Deborah W. Bruner and David C. Currow
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Purpose of review Correlational science discovers associations between patient characteristics, symptoms and biomarkers. Correlational science using data from cross-sectional studies is the most frequently applied study design in palliative care research. The purpose of this review is to address the importance and potential pitfalls in correlational science.

Recent findings Associations observed in correlational science studies can be the basis for generating hypotheses that can be tested in experimental studies and are the basic data needed to develop classification systems that can predict patient outcomes. Major pitfalls in correlational science are that associations do not equate with causality and that statistical significance does not necessarily equal a correlation that is of clinical interest. Researchers should be aware of the end-points that are clinically relevant, that end-points should be defined before the start of the analyses, and that studies with several end-points should account for multiplicity.

Summary Correlational science in palliative care research can identify related clinical factors and biomarkers. Interpretation of identified associations should be done with careful consideration of the limitations underlying correlational analyses.

aDepartment of Anesthesiology and Acute Medicine, St. Olavs University Hospital

bDepartment of Circulation and Medical Imaging, Medical Faculty, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

cEuropean Palliative Care Research Centre (PRC), Faculty of Medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

dCancer Clinic, St. Olavs Hospital, Trondheim University Hospital, Trondheim, Norway

Correspondence to Pål Klepstad, MD, PhD, Department Of Anesthesiology and Acute Medicine, St. Olavs University Hospital, 7006 Trondheim, Norway. Tel: +47 72575709; e-mail: pal.klepstad@ntnu.no

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.