Identifying treatment heterogeneity in atrial fibrillation using a novel causal machine learning method

Che Ngufor, Xiaoxi Yao, Jonathan W. Inselman, Joseph S. Ross, Sanket S. Dhruva, David J. Graham, Joo Yeon Lee, Konstantinos C. Siontis, Nihar R. Desai, Eric Polley, Nilay D. Shah, Peter A. Noseworthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Lifelong oral anticoagulation is recommended in patients with atrial fibrillation (AF) to prevent stroke. Over the last decade, multiple new oral anticoagulants (OACs) have expanded the number of treatment options for these patients. While population-level effectiveness of OACs has been compared, it is unclear if there is variability in benefit and risk across patient subgroups. Methods: We analyzed claims and medical data for 34,569 patients who initiated a nonvitamin K antagonist oral anticoagulant (non-vitamin K antagonist oral anticoagulant (NOAC); apixaban, dabigatran, and rivaroxaban) or warfarin for nonvalvular AF between 08/01/2010 and 11/29/2017 from the OptumLabs Data Warehouse. A machine learning (ML) method was applied to match different OAC groups on several baseline variables including, age, sex, race, renal function, and CHA2DS2 -VASC score. A causal ML method was then used to discover patient subgroups characterizing the head-to-head treatment effects of the OACs on a primary composite outcome of ischemic stroke, intracranial hemorrhage, and all-cause mortality. Results: The mean age, number of females and white race in the entire cohort of 34,569 patients were 71.2 (SD, 10.7) years, 14,916 (43.1%), and 25,051 (72.5%) respectively. During a mean follow-up of 8.3 (SD, 9.0) months, 2,110 (6.1%) of patients experienced the composite outcome, of whom 1,675 (4.8%) died. The causal ML method identified 5 subgroups with variables favoring apixaban over dabigatran; 2 subgroups favoring apixaban over rivaroxaban; 1 subgroup favoring dabigatran over rivaroxaban; and 1 subgroup favoring rivaroxaban over dabigatran in terms of risk reduction of the primary endpoint. No subgroup favored warfarin and most dabigatran vs warfarin users favored neither drug. The variables that most influenced favoring one subgroup over another included Age, history of ischemic stroke, thromboembolism, estimated glomerular filtration rate, Race, and myocardial infarction. Conclusions: Among patients with AF treated with a NOAC or warfarin, a causal ML method identified patient subgroups with differences in outcomes associated with OAC use. The findings suggest that the effects of OACs are heterogeneous across subgroups of AF patients, which could help personalize the choice of OAC. Future prospective studies are needed to better understand the clinical impact of the subgroups with respect to OAC selection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)124-140
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican heart journal
StatePublished - Jun 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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