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Immortal Time Bias in the Study of Stillbirth Risk Factors: The Example of Gestational Diabetes

Hutcheon, Jennifer A.; Kuret, Verena; Joseph, K. S.; Sabr, Yasser; Lim, Kenneth


An entry in the Table is incorrect. The denominator for the calculation of risk for stillbirth among women with GDM > 28 weeks (second row, first column) should be 76,371.

Epidemiology. 26(1):e13, January 2015.

doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e3182a6d9aa

Background: Current understanding of the increased risk for stillbirth in gestational diabetes mellitus is often based on large cohort studies in which the risk of stillbirth in women with this disease is compared with the risk in women without. However, such studies could be susceptible to immortal time bias because, although many cohorts begin at 20 weeks’ gestation, pregnancies must “survive” until 24–28 weeks in order to be screened and diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

Methods: We describe the theoretical potential for immortal time bias in studies of stillbirth and gestational diabetes and then quantify the magnitude of the bias using 2006 United States vital statistics data.

Results: Although gestational diabetes was protective against stillbirth when including all births (relative risk = 0.88 [95% confidence interval = 0.79–0.99]), restricting analyses to births at >28 weeks’ gestation reversed the effect and diabetes became associated with an increased risk of stillbirth (1.25 [1.11–1.41]).

Conclusion: Immortal time before diagnosis of gestational diabetes may bias our understanding of the stillbirth risk associated with this condition.

From the aUniversity of British Columbia, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Vancouver, Canada; and bUniversity of British Columbia, School of Population and Public Health, Vancouver, Canada.

J.A.H. is supported by a New Investigator Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a Scholar Award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. K.S.J. is supported by a salary award from the Child & Family Research Institute, Vancouver, Canada.

Correspondence: Jennifer A. Hutcheon, SHY E421A, BC Children’s & Women’s Hospital, 4500 Oak Street, Vancouver, Canada, V6H 3N1. E-mail:

Received January 7, 2013

Accepted April 27, 2013

Understanding the extent to which pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes mellitus or preeclampsia increase a woman’s risk of stillbirth is important for clinical management. Information on stillbirth risk is used to support patient counseling and to develop clinical guidelines on the appropriate degree of antenatal surveillance if the risk of stillbirth is increased. Estimates of the relative risk of stillbirth associated with various pregnancy complications are typically obtained from large population-based cohort studies in which the risk of stillbirth among deliveries with the pregnancy complication is compared with the risk among deliveries without the complication (after adjusting for relevant confounders).1–6 As mandatory registration for stillbirths begins at or around 20 weeks’ gestation in many jurisdictions (eg, most US States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand),7–9 the analyses often include all births delivered at or beyond 20 weeks’ gestation.1–4

However, a number of pregnancy-related complications are not diagnosed until mid-to-late pregnancy. For example, gestational diabetes is diagnosed after routine screening at 24–28 weeks,10–12 whereas the majority of preeclampsia cases develop at or near term.13 We hypothesized that these differences between the start of the cohort follow-up period (ie, 20 weeks’ gestation) and the time at which exposure status is established (ie, diagnosis of gestational diabetes or preeclampsia) may create the potential for immortal time bias. Using the example of gestational diabetes, our goals in this report were (1) to describe the theoretical potential for immortal time bias in the specific context of the study of risk factors for stillbirth and (2) to quantify the magnitude of this bias in order to establish its potential impact on substantive conclusions.

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We used the conditions for immortal time bias outlined by Lévesque and colleagues14 to assess the theoretical potential for immortal time in the study of gestational diabetes and stillbirth risk. These conditions include (1) treatment status determined after the start of follow-up or defined using follow-up time, (2) different start-up time for the treated and untreated group relative to the start of diagnosis, (3) treatment groups identified hierarchically (one group before the other), (4) subjects excluded on the basis of treatment identified during follow-up, and (5) use of a time-fixed analysis.

We quantified the impact of immortal time bias using 2006 United States live birth-infant death and fetal death files, available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Vital Statistics ( We restricted our analyses to births registered using the 2003 revision of the birth certificate in order to differentiate gestational diabetes from type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Multiple births and pregnancies with type 1 or type 2 diabetes were excluded. In accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Vital Statistics practice,8 stillbirth analyses were restricted to births ≥20 weeks of gestation. We used the clinical estimate of gestational age, as this has been shown to be more accurate than estimates based on last menstrual period.15 Relative risk of stillbirth associated with gestational diabetes was calculated as the risk of stillbirth among all births with this disease divided by the risk of stillbirth among all births without. We also estimated the relative risk of gestational diabetes in a cohort restricted to births >28 weeks, that is, after the recommended screening window for gestational diabetes.10,11

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Theoretical Potential for Immortal Time Bias

Immortal time refers to “a period of follow-up during which, by design, death or the study outcome cannot occur.”14 Although the potential for immortal time bias is well-recognized in areas such as transplantation research, nephrology, and pharmacoepidemiology,14,16,17 it has received little attention in the study of stillbirth. The conventional study of stillbirth in gestational diabetes is susceptible to immortal time bias for a number of reasons. First, although most study cohorts include all births from the start of the jurisdiction’s mandatory birth registration period (eg, 20 weeks in most US states, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand),7–9 the diagnosis of gestational diabetes does not usually occur until 24–28 weeks.12 This creates a situation where pregnancies must “survive” until 24–28 weeks in order to be screened for gestational diabetes. As illustrated in Figure 1, the time before the diagnosis becomes “immortal,” as, by definition, stillbirths to women with gestational diabetes cannot be identified before 24–28 weeks.

The difference in the start of follow-up between women with and without gestational diabetes means that for women without this complication, the calculation of stillbirth risk will include all stillbirths from 20 weeks of pregnancy in its numerator, whereas for women with gestational diabetes, the numerator will be primarily restricted to stillbirths ≥24–28 weeks (recognizing that a small fraction of women with risk factors may be screened and diagnosed with gestational diabetes before 24 weeks).12 This would be expected to inflate the risk of stillbirth in the unexposed cohort, leading to an attenuation of the true relative risk of stillbirth associated with gestational diabetes. Using the individual rather than person-time as the unit of analysis (ie, the pregnancy rather than “gestational days at-risk”) prevents this difference in the at-risk periods from being taken into account.



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Quantifying the Magnitude of the Bias

After excluding 67,735 multiple births and 13,883 women with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, 2,001,749 women with known gestational diabetes status were retained for analysis in our cohort. A total of 76,669 women had a documented diagnosis of gestational diabetes, corresponding to a risk of 3.8% in the population.

When analyzing all births ≥20 weeks, we found gestational diabetes to have a protective effect on stillbirth risk (relative risk = 0.88 [95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.79–0.99]) (Table). This result is comparable to results previously reported in the literature based on similar analytic approaches. A study of 120,604 pregnancies in Ontario, Canada, found that gestational diabetes was strongly protective against stillbirth (odds ratio [OR] = 0.33 [95% CI = 0.12–0.71]),18 whereas another hospital-based study from Israel showed similar protection for diet-controlled gestational diabetes (OR = 0.5 [95% CI = 0.4–0.7]).19 Another study also reported an OR of 0.7 (95% CI = 0.6–0.9) associated with gestational diabetes, which the authors attributed to the increased surveillance and active management received by women with the condition.20

However, when analyses were restricted to births at 28 weeks and later, the apparent protective effect of gestational diabetes was eliminated, and the condition became associated with an increased risk of stillbirth (relative risk = 1.25 [95% CI = 1.11–1.41]) (Table). Plotting the gestational age distribution of stillbirths in the unexposed cohort (Figure 2) helps to explain this result. Nearly 30% of stillbirths in the cohort (2658/9165) occurred at 20–23 weeks before the start of routine diabetes screening. These were likely second-trimester losses or pregnancy terminations (following detection of prenatal diagnosis of a congenital anomaly or for other reasons).21 Stillbirths at this gestational age were attributed to women without gestational diabetes, as, by design, the diagnosis of gestational diabetes was not (usually) made until later in gestation.

Restricting analyses to deliveries at 28 weeks and beyond reduces the potential for immortal time bias by eliminating the difference in follow-up period between women with and without gestational diabetes. The reversal of the relative risk reported when analyses were restricted to >28 weeks suggests that the protective effect of gestational diabetes on stillbirth risk obtained in many studies represents immortal time bias, rather than a true protective effect resulting from increased antenatal monitoring and surveillance. This conclusion is supported by the findings of a recent study of stillbirth risk in gestational diabetes at term, in which a relative risk of 1.35 (95% CI = 1.2–1.5) was found in a cohort restricted to pregnancies at or beyond 36 weeks.22 Similarly, a report based on the Swedish Medical Birth Register23 (in which stillbirth registration begins at 28 weeks) found a crude OR of 1.18 (95% CI = 0.87–1.60).





Although these relative risks highlight the role of immortal time bias, details on the specific timing of diabetes diagnosis and adjustments for confounders are needed to generate an unbiased estimate of the association between gestational diabetes and stillbirth. Our study also highlights the importance of carefully considering the outcome definitions used in the study of stillbirth. Definitions of stillbirth other than those used for legal birth registration purposes (eg, definitions that exclude pregnancy terminations, or that contain a gestational age–based criteria such as >28 weeks) may provide more meaningful answers, depending on the specific question under study.

Several approaches have been proposed to account for immortal time.14 In this study, we used a “survivors- only” analysis, restricting the study population to women who remained pregnant beyond 28 weeks. Other potential approaches include the use of a time-matched nested case-control study and the use of a time-dependent analysis. If the amount of immortal time is known, formulas are available that quantify the magnitude of the bias.17 However, these latter approaches are challenging in the study of gestational diabetes. Whereas large population databases are typically required to obtain sufficient statistical precision to study rare outcomes such as stillbirth, they do not usually have information on the age and date of gestational diabetes screening, which is required to match follow-up time from the time of diagnosis. More sophisticated approaches, such as linkage of laboratory records with perinatal outcome data, may be needed to adequately study such questions. In the study of preeclampsia, for example, time of diagnosis could potentially be identified through use of antenatal hospitalization records (as women with preeclampsia are typically admitted to hospital following initial diagnosis) and linked with outcome data contained in delivery records.

We hypothesized that studies of stillbirth risk in gestational diabetes may be susceptible to immortal time bias because the follow-up of women with gestational diabetes begins at a later gestational age than that of women without gestational diabetes. We demonstrated that this bias was large enough to affect the risk of stillbirth associated with gestational diabetes. The implications of our findings extend beyond studies of gestational diabetes. Immortal time bias may be present in any studies of stillbirth in association with pregnancy complications that develop in mid-to-late pregnancy, including preeclampsia, gestational hypertension, intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, and eclampsia, where the bias may attenuate the true relative risk. Analytic approaches that correctly account for the immortal time before the time of diagnosis are critical for ensuring an unbiased understanding of the extent to which pregnancy complications increase a woman’s risk of stillbirth.

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