Open Access Research article

Accounting for individual differences and timing of events: estimating the effect of treatment on criminal convictions in heroin users

Jo Røislien12*, Thomas Clausen1, Jon Michael Gran2 and Anne Bukten1

Author Affiliations

1 SERAF, Norwegian Centre for Addiction Research, University of Oslo, Kirkeveien 166, 0407 Oslo, Norway

2 Department of Biostatistics, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, Boks 1122 Blindern, 0317 Oslo, Norway

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2014, 14:68  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-14-68

Published: 17 May 2014



The reduction of crime is an important outcome of opioid maintenance treatment (OMT). Criminal intensity and treatment regimes vary among OMT patients, but this is rarely adjusted for in statistical analyses, which tend to focus on cohort incidence rates and rate ratios. The purpose of this work was to estimate the relationship between treatment and criminal convictions among OMT patients, adjusting for individual covariate information and timing of events, fitting time-to-event regression models of increasing complexity.


National criminal records were cross linked with treatment data on 3221 patients starting OMT in Norway 1997–2003. In addition to calculating cohort incidence rates, criminal convictions was modelled as a recurrent event dependent variable, and treatment a time-dependent covariate, in Cox proportional hazards, Aalen’s additive hazards, and semi-parametric additive hazards regression models. Both fixed and dynamic covariates were included.


During OMT, the number of days with criminal convictions for the cohort as a whole was 61% lower than when not in treatment. OMT was associated with reduced number of days with criminal convictions in all time-to-event regression models, but the hazard ratio (95% CI) was strongly attenuated when adjusting for covariates; from 0.40 (0.35, 0.45) in a univariate model to 0.79 (0.72, 0.87) in a fully adjusted model. The hazard was lower for females and decreasing with older age, while increasing with high numbers of criminal convictions prior to application to OMT (all p < 0.001). The strongest predictors were level of criminal activity prior to entering into OMT, and having a recent criminal conviction (both p < 0.001). The effect of several predictors was significantly time-varying with their effects diminishing over time.


Analyzing complex observational data regarding to fixed factors only overlooks important temporal information, and naïve cohort level incidence rates might result in biased estimates of the effect of interventions. Applying time-to-event regression models, properly adjusting for individual covariate information and timing of various events, allows for more precise and reliable effect estimates, as well as painting a more nuanced picture that can aid health care professionals and policy makers.

Maintenance treatment; Criminal activity; Time-to-event; Recurring event; Time-dependent covariate; Dynamic covariate