Sources for "Controls"

Population Controls:

A population-based case-control study is one in which the cases come from a precisely defined population, such as a fixed geographic area, and the controls are sampled directly from the same population. In this situation cases might be identified from a state cancer registry, for example, and the comparison group would logically be selected at random from the same source population. Population controls can be identified from voter registration lists, tax rolls, drivers license lists, and telephone directories or by "random digit dialing". Population controls may also be more difficult to obtain, however, because of lack of interest in participating, and there may be recall bias, since population controls are generally healthy and may remember past exposures less accurately.

Random Digit Dialing

Random digit dialing has been popular in the past, but it is becoming less useful because of the use of caller ID, answer machines, and a greater reliance on cell phones instead of land lines.

Ken Rothman points out several that random digit dialing provides an equal probability that any given phone will be dialed, but not an equal probability of reaching eligible control subjects, because households vary in the number of residents and the likelihood that someone will be home. In addition, random digit dialing doesn't make any distinction between residential and business phones.


Example of a Population-based Case-Control Study: Rollison et al. reported on a "Population-based Case-Control Study of Diabetes and Breast Cancer Risk in Hispanic and Non-Hispanic White Women Living in US Southwestern States". (ALink to the article - Citation: Am J Epidemiol 2008;167:447–456).

"Briefly, a population-based case-control study of breast cancer was conducted in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and selected counties of Arizona. For investigation of differences in the breast cancer risk profiles of non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics, sampling was stratified by race/ethnicity, and only women who self-reported their race as non-Hispanic White, Hispanic, or American Indian were eligible, with the exception of American Indian women living on reservations. Women diagnosed with histologically confirmed breast cancer between October 1999 and May 2004 (International Classification of Diseases for Oncology codes C50.0–C50.6 and C50.8–C50.9) were identified as cases through population-based cancer registries in each state."

"Population-based controls were frequency-matched to cases in 5-year age groups. In New Mexico and Utah, control participants under age 65 years were randomly selected from driver's license lists; in Arizona and Colorado, controls were randomly selected from commercial mailing lists, since driver's license lists were unavailable. In all states, women aged 65 years or older were randomly selected from the lists of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (Social Security lists). Of all women contacted, 68 percent of cases and 42 percent of controls participated in the study."

"Odds ratios and 95% confidence intervals were calculated using logistic regression, adjusting for age, body mass index at age 15 years, and parity. Having any type of diabetes was not associated with breast cancer overall (odds ratio = 0.94, 95% confidence interval: 0.78, 1.12). Type 2 diabetes was observed among 19% of Hispanics and 9% of non-Hispanic Whites but was not associated with breast cancer in either group."

In this example, it is clear that the controls were selected from the source population (principle 1), but less clear that they were enrolled independent of exposure status (principle 2), both because drivers' licenses were used for selection and because the participation rate among controls was low. These factors would only matter if they impacted on the estimate of the proportion of the population who had diabetes.

Hospital or Clinic Controls:

If cases are obtained from a medical facility, the comparison groups should be obtained from the same facility, provided they meet two criteria:

  1. They have diseases that are unrelated to the exposure being studied. For example, for a study examining the association between smoking and lung cancer, it would not be appropriate to include patients with cardiovascular disease as control, since smoking is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. To include such patients as controls would result in an underestimate of the true association.
  2. Second, control patients in the comparison should have diseases with similar referral patterns as the cases, in order to minimize selection bias. For example, if the cases are women with cervical cancer who have been referred from all over the state, it would be inappropriate to use controls consisting of women with diabetes who had been referred primarily from local health centers in the immediate vicinity of the hospital. Similarly, it would be inappropriate to use patients from the emergency room, because the selection of a hospital for an emergency is different than for cancer, and this difference might be related to the exposure of interest.

The advantages of using controls who are patients from the same facility are:

Example: Several years ago the vascular surgeons at Boston Medical Center wanted to study risk factors for severe atherosclerosis of the lower extremities. The cases were patients who were referred to the hospital for elective surgery to bypass severe atherosclerotic blockages in the arteries to the legs. The controls consisted of patients who were admitted to the same hospital for elective joint replacement of the hip or knee. The patients undergoing joint replacement were similar in age and they also were following the same referral pathways. In other words, they met the "would" criterion: if one of the joint replacement surgery patients had developed severe atherosclerosis in their leg arteries, they would have been referred to the same hospital.

Friend, Neighbor, Spouse, and Relative Controls:

Occasionally investigators will ask cases to nominate controls who are in one of these categories, because they have similar characteristics, such as genotype, socioeconomic status, or environment, i.e., factors that can cause confounding, but are hard to measure and adjust for. By matching cases and controls on these factors, confounding by these factors will be controlled.   However, one must be careful that the controls satisfy the two fundamental principles. Often, they do not.

How Many Controls?

Since case-control studies are often used for uncommon outcomes, investigators often have a limited number of cases but a plentiful supply of potential controls. In this situation the statistical power of the study can be increased somewhat by enrolling more controls than cases. However, the additional power that is achieved diminishes as the ratio of controls to cases increases, and ratios greater than 4:1 have little additional impact on power. Consequently, if it is time-consuming or expensive to collect data on controls, the ratio of controls to cases should be no more than 4:1. However, if the data on controls is easily obtained, there is no reason to limit the number of controls.

Methods of Control Sampling

There are three strategies for selecting controls that are best explained by considering the nested case-control study described on page 3 of this module:

The Rare Outcome Assumption

It is often said that an odds ratio provides a good estimate of the risk ratio only when the outcome of interest is rare, but this is only true when survivor sampling is used. With case-base sampling or risk set sampling, the odds ratio will provide a good estimate of the risk ratio regardless of the frequency of the outcome, because the controls will provide an accurate estimate of the distribution in the source population (i.e., not just in non-diseased people).

More on Selection Bias

Always consider the source population for case-control studies, i.e. the "population" that generated the cases. The cases are always identified and enrolled by some method or a set of procedures or circumstances. For example, cases with a certain disease might be referred to a particular tertiary hospital for specialized treatment. Alternatively, if there is a database or a disease registry for a geographic area, cases might be selected at random from the database. The key to avoiding selection bias is to select the controls by a similar, if not identical, mechanism in order to ensure that the controls provide an accurate representation of the exposure status of the source population.

Example 1: In the first example above, in which cases were randomly selected from a geographically defined database, the source population is also defined geographically, so it would make sense to select population controls by some random method. In contrast, if one enrolled controls from a particular hospital within the geographic area, one would have to at least consider whether the controls were inherently more or less likely to have the exposure of interest. If so, they would not provide an accurate estimate of the exposure distribution of the source population, and selection bias would result.

Example 2: In the second example above, the source population was defined by the patterns of referral to a particular hospital for a particular disease. In order for the controls to be representative of the "population" that produced those cases, the controls should be selected by a similar mechanism, e.g., by contacting the referring health care providers and asking them to provide the names of potential controls. By this mechanism, one can ensure that the controls are representative of the source population, because if they had had the disease of interest they would have been just as likely as the cases to have been included in the case group (thus fulfilling the "would" criterion).

Example 3: A food handler at a delicatessen who is infected with hepatitis A virus is responsible for an outbreak of hepatitis which is largely confined to the surrounding community from which most of the customers come. Many (but not all) of the infected cases are identified by passive and active surveillance. How should controls be selected? In this situation, one might guess that the likelihood of people going to the delicatessen would be heavily influenced by their proximity to it, and this would to a large extent define the source population. In a case-control study undertaken to identify the source, the delicatessen is one of the exposures being tested. Consequently, even if the cases were reported to the state-wide surveillance system, it would not be appropriate to randomly select controls from the state, the county, or even the town where the delicatessen is located. In other words, the "would" criterion doesn't work here, because anyone in the state with clinical hepatitis would end up in the surveillance system, but someone who lived far from the deli would have a much lower likelihood of having the exposure. A better approach would be to select controls who were matched to the cases by neighborhood, age, and gender. These controls would have similar access to go to the deli if they chose to, and they would therefore be more representative of the source population.