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16.1.2  General principles for dealing with missing data

There is a large literature of statistical methods for dealing with missing data. Here we briefly review some key concepts and make some general recommendations for Cochrane review authors. It is important to think why data may be missing. Statisticians often use the terms ‘missing at random’ and ‘not missing at random’ to represent different scenarios.


Data are said to be ‘missing at random’ if the fact that they are missing is unrelated to actual values of the missing data. For instance, if some quality-of-life questionnaires were lost in the postal system, this would be unlikely to be related to the quality of life of the trial participants who completed the forms. In some circumstances, statisticians distinguish between data ‘missing at random’ and data ‘missing completely at random’, although in the context of a systematic review the distinction is unlikely to be important. Data that are missing at random may not be important. Analyses based on the available data will tend to be unbiased, although based on a smaller sample size than the original data set.


Data are said to be ‘not missing at random’ if the fact that they are missing is related to the actual missing data. For instance, in a depression trial, participants who had a relapse of depression might be less likely to attend the final follow-up interview, and more likely to have missing outcome data. Such data are ‘non-ignorable’ in the sense that an analysis of the available data alone will typically be biased. Publication bias and selective reporting bias lead by definition to data that are 'not missing at random', and attrition and exclusions of individuals within studies often do as well.


The principal options for dealing with missing data are.

1.       analysing only the available data (i.e. ignoring the missing data);

2.       imputing the missing data with replacement values, and treating these as if they were observed (e.g. last observation carried forward, imputing an assumed outcome such as assuming all were poor outcomes, imputing the mean, imputing based on predicted values from a regression analysis);

3.       imputing the missing data and accounting for the fact that these were imputed with uncertainty (e.g. multiple imputation, simple imputation methods (as point 2) with adjustment to the standard error);

4.       using statistical models to allow for missing data, making assumptions about their relationships with the available data.


Option 1 may be appropriate when data can be assumed to be missing at random. Options 2 to 4 are attempts to address data not missing at random. Option 2 is practical in most circumstances and very commonly used in systematic reviews. However, it fails to acknowledge uncertainty in the imputed values and results, typically, in confidence intervals that are too narrow. Options 3 and 4 would require involvement of a knowledgeable statistician.


Four general recommendations for dealing with missing data in Cochrane reviews are as follows.