Lower Risk of Death With SGLT2 Inhibitors in Observational Studies: Real or Bias?

Two recent observational studies reported a remarkably lower rate of all-cause death associated with sodium–glucose cotransporter 2 inhibitor (­SGLT2i) use in all patients with type 2 diabetes and not only those at increased cardiovascular risk. The >50% lower mortality rates reported in these studies are much greater than those found in the BI 10773 (Empagliflozin) Cardiovascular Outcome Event Trial in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Patients (EMPA-REG OUTCOME) and CANagliflozin cardioVascular Assessment Study (CANVAS) randomized trials. We show that these observational studies are affected by time-related biases, including immortal time bias and time-lag bias, which tend to exaggerate the benefits observed with a drug. The Comparative Effectiveness of Cardiovascular Outcomes in New Users of SGLT-2 Inhibitors (CVD-REAL) study, based on 166,033 users of SGLT2i and 1,226,221 users of other glucose-lowering drugs (oGLD) identified from health care databases of six countries, was affected by immortal time bias. Indeed, the immortal time between the first oGLD prescription and the first SGLT2i prescription was omitted from the analysis, which resulted in increasing the rate of death in the oGLD group and thus producing the appearance of a lower risk of death with SGLT2i use. The Swedish study compared 10,879 SGLT2i/dipeptidyl peptidase 4 inhibitor (DPP-4i) users with 10,879 matched insulin users. Such comparisons involving second-line therapies with a third-line therapy can introduce time-lag bias, as the patients may not be at the same stage of diabetes. This bias is compounded by the fact that the users of insulin had already started their insulin before cohort entry, unlike the new users of SGLT2i. Finally, the study also introduces immortal time bias with respect to the effects of SGLT2i relative to DPP-4i. In conclusion, the >50% lower rate of death with SGLT2i in type 2 diabetes reported by two recent observational studies is likely exaggerated by immortal time and time-lag biases. It thus remains uncertain whether the benefit seen with empagliflozin in the EMPA-REG OUTCOME trial applies to all SGLT2i and to all patients with type 2 diabetes, not only those at increased cardiovascular risk. While observational studies can provide crucial real-world evidence for the effects of medications, they need to be carefully conducted to avoid such major time-related biases.

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