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Open Access Research article

Optimizing cost-efficiency in mean exposure assessment - cost functions reconsidered

Svend Erik Mathiassen1* and Kristian Bolin2

  • * Corresponding author: Svend Erik Mathiassen

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Musculoskeletal Research, Department of Occupational and Public Health Sciences, University of Gävle, Sweden

2 Department of Economics, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:76  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-76

Published: 21 May 2011



Reliable exposure data is a vital concern in medical epidemiology and intervention studies. The present study addresses the needs of the medical researcher to spend monetary resources devoted to exposure assessment with an optimal cost-efficiency, i.e. obtain the best possible statistical performance at a specified budget. A few previous studies have suggested mathematical optimization procedures based on very simple cost models; this study extends the methodology to cover even non-linear cost scenarios.


Statistical performance, i.e. efficiency, was assessed in terms of the precision of an exposure mean value, as determined in a hierarchical, nested measurement model with three stages. Total costs were assessed using a corresponding three-stage cost model, allowing costs at each stage to vary non-linearly with the number of measurements according to a power function. Using these models, procedures for identifying the optimally cost-efficient allocation of measurements under a constrained budget were developed, and applied on 225 scenarios combining different sizes of unit costs, cost function exponents, and exposure variance components.


Explicit mathematical rules for identifying optimal allocation could be developed when cost functions were linear, while non-linear cost functions implied that parts of or the entire optimization procedure had to be carried out using numerical methods.

For many of the 225 scenarios, the optimal strategy consisted in measuring on only one occasion from each of as many subjects as allowed by the budget. Significant deviations from this principle occurred if costs for recruiting subjects were large compared to costs for setting up measurement occasions, and, at the same time, the between-subjects to within-subject variance ratio was small. In these cases, non-linearities had a profound influence on the optimal allocation and on the eventual size of the exposure data set.


The analysis procedures developed in the present study can be used for informed design of exposure assessment strategies, provided that data are available on exposure variability and the costs of collecting and processing data. The present shortage of empirical evidence on costs and appropriate cost functions however impedes general conclusions on optimal exposure measurement strategies in different epidemiologic scenarios.