New methods for estimating follow-up rates in cohort studies

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47 Scopus citations


Background: The follow-up rate, a standard index of the completeness of follow-up, is important for assessing the validity of a cohort study. A common method for estimating the follow-up rate, the "Percentage Method", defined as the fraction of all enrollees who developed the event of interest or had complete follow-up, can severely underestimate the degree of follow-up. Alternatively, the median follow-up time does not indicate the completeness of follow-up, and the reverse Kaplan-Meier based method and Clark's Completeness Index (CCI) also have limitations. Methods: We propose a new definition for the follow-up rate, the Person-Time Follow-up Rate (PTFR), which is the observed person-time divided by total person-time assuming no dropouts. The PTFR cannot be calculated directly since the event times for dropouts are not observed. Therefore, two estimation methods are proposed: a formal person-time method (FPT) in which the expected total follow-up time is calculated using the event rate estimated from the observed data, and a simplified person-time method (SPT) that avoids estimation of the event rate by assigning full follow-up time to all events. Simulations were conducted to measure the accuracy of each method, and each method was applied to a prostate cancer recurrence study dataset. Results: Simulation results showed that the FPT has the highest accuracy overall. In most situations, the computationally simpler SPT and CCI methods are only slightly biased. When applied to a retrospective cohort study of cancer recurrence, the FPT, CCI and SPT showed substantially greater 5-year follow-up than the Percentage Method (92%, 92% and 93% vs 68%). Conclusions: The Person-time methods correct a systematic error in the standard Percentage Method for calculating follow-up rates. The easy to use SPT and CCI methods can be used in tandem to obtain an accurate and tight interval for PTFR. However, the FPT is recommended when event rates and dropout rates are high.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number155
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Competing risk
  • Loss to follow-up
  • Median survival time
  • Person-time
  • Reverse Kaplan-Meier survival curve

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Health Informatics


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