Published on Wed Aug 11 2021

COVID-19 Policy Impact Evaluation: A guide to common design issues.

Noah A Haber, Emma Clarke-Deelder, Joshua A Salomon, Avi Feller, Elizabeth A Stuart

Policy responses to COVID-19, particularly those related to non-pharmaceutical interventions, are unprecedented in scale and scope. Methodological complications of policy evaluations can make it difficult for decision-makers and researchers to synthesize and evaluate strength of evidence in health policy papers.

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Abstract

Policy responses to COVID-19, particularly those related to non-pharmaceutical interventions, are unprecedented in scale and scope. However, policy impact evaluations require a complex combination of circumstance, study design, data, statistics, and analysis. Beyond the issues that are faced for any policy, evaluation of COVID-19 policies is complicated by additional challenges related to infectious disease dynamics and a multiplicity of interventions. The methods needed for policy-level impact evaluation are not often used or taught in epidemiology, and differ in important ways that may not be obvious. Methodological complications of policy evaluations can make it difficult for decision-makers and researchers to synthesize and evaluate strength of evidence in COVID-19 health policy papers. We (1) introduce the basic suite of policy impact evaluation designs for observational data, including cross-sectional analyses, pre/post, interrupted time-series, and difference-in-differences analysis, (2) demonstrate key ways in which the requirements and assumptions underlying these designs are often violated in the context of COVID-19, and (3) provide decision-makers and reviewers a conceptual and graphical guide to identifying these key violations. The overall goal of this paper is to help epidemiologists, policy-makers, journal editors, journalists, researchers, and other research consumers understand and weigh the strengths and limitations of evidence.