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Open Access Highly Accessed Analytic Perspective

The missed lessons of Sir Austin Bradford Hill

Carl V Phillips123* and Karen J Goodman1

Author Affiliations

1 Management, Policy and Community Health Division, University of Texas School of Public Health, 1200 Pressler, Houston, TX 77225, USA

2 Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Texas Medical School, Houston, TX USA

3 Center for Philosophy, Health, and Policy Sciences, Inc, Houston, USA

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Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations 2004, 1:3  doi:10.1186/1742-5573-1-3

Published: 4 October 2004

Abstract

Austin Bradford Hill's landmark 1965 paper contains several important lessons for the current conduct of epidemiology. Unfortunately, it is almost exclusively cited as the source of the "Bradford-Hill criteria" for inferring causation when association is observed, despite Hill's explicit statement that cause-effect decisions cannot be based on a set of rules. Overlooked are Hill's important lessons about how to make decisions based on epidemiologic evidence. He advised epidemiologists to avoid over-emphasizing statistical significance testing, given the observation that systematic error is often greater than random error. His compelling and intuitive examples point out the need to consider costs and benefits when making decisions about health-promoting interventions. These lessons, which offer ways to dramatically increase the contribution of health science to decision making, are as needed today as they were when Hill presented them.

Keywords:
epidemiologic methods; health policy; causal inference