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Using and interpreting cost-effectiveness acceptability curves: an example using data from a trial of management strategies for atrial fibrillation

Elisabeth Fenwick1*, Deborah A Marshall2, Adrian R Levy3 and Graham Nichol4

Author Affiliations

1 Public Health and Health Policy, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK

2 Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University and Centre for Evaluation of Medicines, St. Joseph's Hospital, Hamilton, ON, Canada

3 Department of Health Care and Epidemiology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

4 Harborview Center for Prehospital Emergency Care, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

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BMC Health Services Research 2006, 6:52  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-6-52

Published: 19 April 2006



The cost-effectiveness acceptability curve (CEAC) is a method for summarizing the uncertainty in estimates of cost-effectiveness. The CEAC, derived from the joint distribution of costs and effects, illustrates the (Bayesian) probability that the data are consistent with a true cost-effectiveness ratio falling below a specified ceiling ratio. The objective of the paper is to illustrate how to construct and interpret a CEAC.


A retrospective cost-effectiveness analysis of the Atrial Fibrillation Follow-up Investigation of Rhythm Management (AFFIRM) randomized controlled trial with 4060 patients followed for 3.5 years. The target population was patients with atrial fibrillation who were 65 years of age or had other risk factors for stroke or death similar to those enrolled in AFFIRM. The intervention involved the management of patients with atrial fibrillation with antiarrhythmic drugs (rhythm-control) compared with drugs that control heart rate (rate-control). Measurements of mean survival, mean costs and incremental cost-effectiveness were made. The uncertainty surrounding the estimates of cost-effectiveness was illustrated through a cost-effectiveness acceptability curve.


The base case point estimate for the difference in effects and costs between rate and rhythm-control is 0.08 years (95% CI: -0.1 years to 0.24 years) and -US$5,077 (95% CI: -$1,100 to -$11,006). The CEAC shows that the decision uncertainty surrounding the adoption of rate-control strategies is less than 1.7% regardless of the maximum acceptable ceiling ratio. Thus, there is very little uncertainty surrounding the decision to adopt rate-control compared to rhythm-control for patients with atrial fibrillation from a resource point of view.


The CEAC is straightforward to calculate, construct and interpret. The CEAC is useful to a decision maker faced with the choice of whether or not to adopt a technology because it provides a measure of the decision uncertainty surrounding the choice.