- Relative risk
statisticsand mathematical epidemiology, relative risk (RR) is the risk of an event (or of developing a disease) relative to exposure. Relative risk is a ratioof the probabilityof the event occurring in the exposed group versus a non-exposed group.
For example, if the
probabilityof developing lung cancer among smokers was 20% and among non-smokers 1%, then the relative risk of cancer associated with smoking would be 20. Smokers would be twenty times as likely as non-smokers to develop lung cancer.
Another term for the relative risk is the risk ratio because it is the ratio of the risk in the exposed divided by the risk in the unexposed.
Statistical use and meaning
Relative risk is used frequently in the statistical analysis of binary outcomes where the outcome of interest has relatively low probability. It is thus often suited to
clinical trialdata, where it is used to compare the risk of developing a disease, in people not receiving the new medical treatment (or receiving a placebo) versus people who are receiving an established (standard of care) treatment. Alternatively, it is used to compare the risk of developing a side effect in people receiving a drug as compared to the people who are not receiving the treatment (or receiving a placebo). It is particularly attractive because it can be calculated by hand in the simple case, but is also susceptible to regression modelling, typically in a Poisson regressionframework.
In a simple comparison between an experimental group and a control group:
*A relative risk of 1 means there is no difference in risk between the two groups.
*An RR of < 1 means the event is less likely to occur in the experimental group than in the control group.
*An RR of > 1 means the event is more likely to occur in the experimental group than in the control group.
As a consequence of the Delta method, the log of the relative risk has a sampling distribution that is approximately normal with variance that can be estimated by a formula involving the number of subjects in each group and the event rates in each group (see Delta method) [See e.g. Stata FAQ on CIs for odds ratios, hazard ratios, IRRs and RRRs at http://www.stata.com/support/faqs/stat/2deltameth.html] . This permits the construction of a
confidence interval(CI) which is symmetric around , i.e.
where is the
standard scorefor the chosen level of significance and SE the standard error. The antilogcan be taken of the two bounds of the log-CI, giving the high and low bounds for an asymmetric confidence interval around the relative risk.
In regression models, the treatment is typically included as a
dummy variablealong with other factors that may affect risk. The relative risk is normally reported as calculated for the meanof the sample values of the explanatory variables.
Association with odds ratio
Relative risk is different from the
odds ratio, although it asymptotically approaches it for small probabilities. In fact, the odds ratio has much wider use in statistics, since logistic regression, often associated with clinical trials, works with the log of the odds ratio, not relative risk. Because the log of the odds ratio is estimated as a linear function of the explanatory variables, the estimated odds ratio for 70-year-olds and 60-year-olds associated with type of treatment would be the same in a logistic regression models where the outcome is associated with drug and age, although the relative risk might be significantly different. In cases like this, statistical models of the odds ratio often reflect the underlying mechanisms more effectively.
Since relative risk is a more intuitive measure of effectiveness, the distinction is important especially in cases of medium to high probabilities. If action A carries a risk of 99.9% and action B a risk of 99.0% then the relative risk is just over 1, while the odds associated with action A are almost 10 times higher than the odds with B.
In medical research, the
odds ratiois favoured for case-control studies and retrospective studies. Relative risk is used in randomized controlled trials and cohort studies. [Medical University of South Carolina. [http://www.musc.edu/dc/icrebm/oddsratio.html Odds ratio versus relative risk] . Accessed on: September 8, 2005.]
In statistical modelling, approaches like
poisson regression(for counts of events per unit exposure) have relative risk interpretations: the estimated effect of an explanatory variable is multiplicative on the rate, and thus leads to a risk ratio or relative risk. Logistic regression(for binary outcomes, or counts of successes out of a number of trials) must be interpreted in odds-ratio terms: the effect of an explanatory variable is multiplicative on the odds and thus leads to an odds ratio.
tatistical significance (confidence) and relative risk
Whether a given relative risk can be considered statistically significant is dependent on the relative difference between the conditions compared, the amount of measurement and the noise associated with the measurement (of the events considered). In other words, the confidence one has, in a given relative risk being non-random (i.e. it is not a consequence of
chance), depends on the signal-to-noise ratioand the sample size.
Expressed mathematically, the confidence that a result is not by random chance is given by the following formula by Sackett [Sackett DL. Why randomized controlled trials fail but needn't: 2. Failure to employ physiological statistics, or the only formula a clinician-trialist is ever likely to need (or understand!). CMAJ. 2001 Oct 30;165(9):1226-37. PMID 11706914. [http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/165/9/1226 Free Full Text] .] :
For clarity, the above formula is presented in tabular form below.
Dependence of confidence with noise, signal and sample size (tabular form)
In words, the confidence is higher if the noise is lower and/or the sample size is larger and/or the effect size (signal) is increased. The confidence of a relative risk value (and its associated confidence interval) is "not" dependent on effect size alone. If the sample size is large and the noise is low a small effect size can be measured with great confidence. Whether a small effect size is considered important is dependent on the context of the events compared.
In medicine, small effect sizes (reflected by small relative risk values) are usually considered clinically relevant (if there is great confidence in them) and are frequently used to guide treatment decisions. A relative risk of 1.10 may seem very small, but over a large number of patients will make a noticeable difference. Whether a given treatment is considered a worthy endeavour is dependent on the risks, benefits and costs.
* (Population) Attributable risk
Number needed to treat(NNT)
Number needed to harm(NNH)
* [http://www.cebm.utoronto.ca/glossary/ EBM glossary]
* [http://www.childrens-mercy.org/stats/journal/oddsratio.asp Odds ratio versus relative risk]
* [http://www.musc.edu/dc/icrebm/oddsratio.html Odds Ratio vs. Relative Risk] Medical University of South Carolina
* [http://www.medcalc.be/calc/relative_risk.php Relative risk online calculator]
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