Heterogeneous treatment effects in social policy studies: An assessment of contemporary articles in the health and social sciences


Cintron, D.W., Adler, N.E., Gottlieb, L.M., Hagan, E., Tan, M.L., Vlahov, D., Glymour, M.M., & Matthay, E.C.


30 June 2022

Publication details

Annals of Epidemiology, 70, 79-88.



Social policies are important determinants of population health but may have varying effects on subgroups of people. Evaluating heterogeneous treatment effects (HTEs) of social policies is critical to determine how social policies will affect health inequities. Methods for evaluating HTEs are not standardized. Little is known about how often and by what methods HTEs are assessed in social policy and health research. A sample of 55 articles from 2019 on the health effects of social policies were evaluated for frequency of reporting HTEs; for what subgroupings HTEs were reported; frequency of a priori specification of intent to assess HTEs; and methods used for assessing HTEs. A total of 24 (44%) studies described some form of HTE assessment, including by age, gender, education, race/ethnicity, and/or geography. Among studies assessing HTEs, 63% specified HTE assessment a priori, and most (71%) used descriptive methods such as stratification; 21% used statistical tests (e.g., interaction terms in a regression); and no studies used data-driven algorithms.Although understanding HTEs could enhance policy and practice-based efforts to reduce inequities, it is not routine research practice. Increased evaluation of HTEs across relevant subgroups is needed.