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ИЖЖЂЂЂЂйIncidence rate and incidence proportion (see accompanying spreadsheet)
The distinction between incidence rate and incidence proportion is one of the more difficult for non-biostatisticians to grasp, and I'm still looking for better ways to explain it.
The incidence rate and incidence proportion are two different views of the frequency with which events (e.g., cases) occur. Incidence involves (1) events, (2) a source population at risk of the event, and (3) the passage of time during which events occur. Incidence rate takes the perspective of what is happening from moment to moment (or year to year). Incidence proportion takes the perspective of what happens over an accumulation of time (hence the synonym "cumulative" incidence).
Let's see if an example will help. Suppose that we are studying the incidence of a first episode of major depressive disorder (MDD) in young adults in their 30's. We have 10 years of data from a large health insurance company that covers treatment for mental illness. The company has 10,000 insured persons age 30-39 years who have never had MDD. Each year the insurance company receives claims from 50 of these people with a new (first) diagnosis of MDD. What is the incidence rate of first MDD?
To simplify matters lets make some assumptions. First, all cases of MDD result in a physician visit, correct diagnosis, and a correctly-coded insurance claim, so all of the numbers are accurate. Second, the situation has been like this for many years, so that the incidence and population are stable. Even though people are developing MDD, there is enough turnover to keep the number of people age 30-39 at risk at 10,000, since all the time new people are entering the population at risk (because people in their 20s are moving on to their 30s) and leaving the population at risk (because people in their 30s are moving on to their 40s).
Suppose the incidence rate is 0.005 per year, or 5 per 1,000 per year. That incidence rate means that in 10,000 at-risk people there will be 50 cases per year, until the number of cases mounts to the point that the number of people at risk decreases. The incidence rate tells us the "force of morbidity", and we can express it as 5 cases per 1,000 person-years, 0.005 per year, or 0.5%/year. The rate implies that if the population size had been 100,000, we would observe 1.4 first episodes of MDD on an "average" day [5 / (1,000 x 365) times 100,000. The story could be finished there, except that we have not yet considered incidence proportion.
Suppose we ask the question what proportion of 30-year-olds will experience a first episode of MDD by the time they reach age 40 years? We identify the 1,023 (my estimate based on a population size of 10,000 and some other considerations) 30-year olds with no history of MDD and assume that they are exposed to a "force of morbidity" of 5/1,000/year for 10 years. By the time the 30-year-olds are 31-year-olds, five of them will have developed MDD, leaving 1,018 31-year-olds still at risk. By the time the 31-year-olds have become 32-year-olds, 5 more will have developed MDD, leaving 1,013 32-year-olds still at risk (all of these numbers have been rounded to the nearest integer). If that process continues until the 978 39-year-olds turn 40, there will have been 50 cases in all during the 10 years. Dividing the 50 new cases by our original population at risk of 1,023 30-year-olds, gives us a cumulative incidence (incidence proportion) of 0.049, or just under 5%. We can use these data to say that there was a 5% risk that a 30-year-old who has never experienced MDD will do so by age 40 years.
The cumulative incidence increases each year as the cases continue to accumulate, but the denominator for cumulative incidence the initial population at risk remains fixed. Meanwhile, each year there are fewer people remaining at risk, since the ones who have already developed MDD are no longer at risk of a first episode. The annual incidence rate in the above example is so small that we dont see the impact of the new cases on the size of the population at risk each successive year. However, if the annual incidence rate were larger say 5 per 100, instead of 5 per 1,000 then the number of people at risk each year would decline meaningfully, and therefore the number of new cases would be smaller in each successive year. The 10-year cumulative incidence corresponding to a 5 per 100 annual incidence rate is 39%. Note that we increased the annual incidence rate by a factor of 10 (from 5 per 100 to 5 per 1,000), but the cumulative incidence increased only by a factor of 8 because the population at risk was being depleted.
The accompanying spreadsheet presents the incidence rate and incidence proportion for each of the 10 years in the above example. You can experiment with the relation by changing the incidence rate (assumed constant, though you can change that, too) and seeing the effect on the number of cases, people still at risk, and incidence proportion.
V. Schoenbach, www.epidemiolog.net, 9/6/2002, 1/25/2004
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