BACKGROUND: Natural or quasi experiments are appealing for public health research because they enable the evaluation of events or interventions that are difficult or impossible to manipulate experimentally, such as many policy and health system reforms. However, there remains ambiguity in the literature about their definition and how they differ from randomized controlled experiments and from other observational designs. We conceptualise natural experiments in the context of public health evaluations and align the study design to the Target Trial Framework.
METHODS: A literature search was conducted, and key methodological papers were used to develop this work. Peer-reviewed papers were supplemented by grey literature.
RESULTS: Natural experiment studies (NES) combine features of experiments and non-experiments. They differ from planned experiments, such as randomized controlled trials, in that exposure allocation is not controlled by researchers. They differ from other observational designs in that they evaluate the impact of events or process that leads to differences in exposure. As a result they are, in theory, less susceptible to bias than other observational study designs. Importantly, causal inference relies heavily on the assumption that exposure allocation can be considered 'as-if randomized'. The target trial framework provides a systematic basis for evaluating this assumption and the other design elements that underpin the causal claims that can be made from NES.
CONCLUSIONS: NES should be considered a type of study design rather than a set of tools for analyses of non-randomized interventions. Alignment of NES to the Target Trial framework will clarify the strength of evidence underpinning claims about the effectiveness of public health interventions.
- NIHR SPHR