Beyond total treatment effects in randomised controlled trials: Baseline measurement of intermediate outcomes needed to reduce confounding in mediation investigations

  • Sabine Landau (Creator)
  • Richard Emsley (Creator)
  • Graham Dunn (Creator)



Background:Random allocation avoids confounding bias when estimating the average treatment effect. For continuous outcomes measured at post-treatment as well as prior to randomisation (baseline), analyses based on (A) post-treatment outcome alone, (B) change scores over the treatment phase or (C) conditioning on baseline values (analysis of covariance) provide unbiased estimators of the average treatment effect. The decision to include baseline values of the clinical outcome in the analysis is based on precision arguments, with analysis of covariance known to be most precise. Investigators increasingly carry out explanatory analyses to decompose total treatment effects into components that are mediated by an intermediate continuous outcome and a non-mediated part. Traditional mediation analysis might be performed based on (A) post-treatment values of the intermediate and clinical outcomes alone, (B) respective change scores or (C) conditioning on baseline measures of both intermediate and clinical outcomes.Methods:Using causal diagrams and Monte Carlo simulation, we investigated the performance of the three competing mediation approaches. We considered a data generating model that included three possible confounding processes involving baseline variables: The first two processes modelled baseline measures of the clinical variable or the intermediate variable as common causes of post-treatment measures of these two variables. The third process allowed the two baseline variables themselves to be correlated due to past common causes. We compared the analysis models implied by the competing mediation approaches with this data generating model to hypothesise likely biases in estimators, and tested these in a simulation study. We applied the methods to a randomised trial of pragmatic rehabilitation in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, which examined the role of limiting activities as a mediator.Results:Estimates of causal mediation effects derived by approach (A) will be biased if one of the three processes involving baseline measures of intermediate or clinical outcomes is operating. Necessary assumptions for the change score approach (B) to provide unbiased estimates under either process include the independence of baseline measures and change scores of the intermediate variable. Finally, estimates provided by the analysis of covariance approach (C) were found to be unbiased under all the three processes considered here. When applied to the example, there was evidence of mediation under all methods but the estimate of the indirect effect depended on the approach used with the proportion mediated varying from 57% to 86%.Conclusion:Trialists planning mediation analyses should measure baseline values of putative mediators as well as of continuous clinical outcomes. An analysis of covariance approach is recommended to avoid potential biases due to confounding processes involving baseline measures of intermediate or clinical outcomes, and not simply for increased precision.
Date made available2018


  • Trials
  • mediation
  • baseline measures
  • confounding
  • complex interventions
  • psychological therapies

Cite this