The Utility of Observational Studies in Clinical Decision Making: Lessons Learned from Statin Trials Academic Article uri icon


  • Contemporary clinical decision making is well supported by a wide variety of information sources, including clinical practice guidelines, position papers, and insights from randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Much of our fundamental understanding of cardiovascular risk factors is based on multiple observations from major epidemiologic studies, such as The Seven Country Studies and the US-based Framingham Heart Study. These studies provided the framework for the development of clinical practice guidelines, including the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel series. The objective of this article is to highlight the value of observational studies as a complement to clinical trial data for clinical decision making in real-world practice. Although RCTs are still the benchmark for assessing clinical efficacy and safety of a specific therapeutic approach, they may be of limited utility to practitioners who must then adapt the lessons learned from the trial into the patient care environment. The use of well-structured observational studies can improve our understanding of the translation of clinical trials into clinical practice, as demonstrated here with the example of statins. Although such studies have their own limitations, improved techniques for design and analysis have reduced the impact of bias and confounders. The introduction of the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) guidelines has provided more uniformity for such studies. When used together with RCTs, observational studies can enhance our understanding of effectiveness and utility in real-world clinical practice. In the examples of statin observational studies, the results suggest that relative effectiveness of different statins and potential impact of switching statins should be carefully considered in treating individual patients by practicing physicians.

publication date

  • May 2010