Causal inference for clinicians

Steven D. Stovitz, Ian Shrier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Evidence-based medicine (EBM) calls on clinicians to incorporate the 'best available evidence' into clinical decision-making. For decisions regarding treatment, the best evidence is that which determines the causal effect of treatments on the clinical outcomes of interest. Unfortunately, research often provides evidence where associations are not due to cause-and-effect, but rather due to non-causal reasons. These non-causal associations may provide valid evidence for diagnosis or prognosis, but biased evidence for treatment effects. Causal inference aims to determine when we can infer that associations are or are not due to causal effects. Since recommending treatments that do not have beneficial causal effects will not improve health, causal inference can advance the practice of EBM. The purpose of this article is to familiarise clinicians with some of the concepts and terminology that are being used in the field of causal inference, including graphical diagrams known as ' causal directed acyclic graphs'. In order to demonstrate some of the links between causal inference methods and clinical treatment decision-making, we use a clinical vignette of assessing treatments to lower cardiovascular risk. As the field of causal inference advances, clinicians familiar with the methods and terminology will be able to improve their adherence to the principles of EBM by distinguishing causal effects of treatment from results due to non-causal associations that may be a source of bias.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)109-112
Number of pages4
JournalBMJ evidence-based medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019

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© 2019 Author(s).


  • epidemiology
  • statistics


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