A New Proposal for Multivariable Modelling of Time-Varying Effects in Survival Data Based on Fractional Polynomial Time-Transformation



The Cox proportional hazards model has become the standard for the analysis of survival time data in cancer and other chronic diseases. In most studies, proportional hazards (PH) are assumed for covariate effects. With long-term follow-up, the PH assumption may be violated, leading to poor model fit. To accommodate non-PH effects, we introduce a new procedure, MFPT, an extension of the multivariable fractional polynomial (MFP) approach, to do the following: (1) select influential variables; (2) determine a sensible dose-response function for continuous variables; (3) investigate time-varying effects; (4) model such time-varying effects on a continuous scale. Assuming PH initially, we start with a detailed model-building step, including a search for possible non-linear functions for continuous covariates. Sometimes a variable with a strong short-term effect may appear weak or non-influential if ‘averaged’ over time under the PH assumption. To protect against omitting such variables, we repeat the analysis over a restricted time-interval. Any additional prognostic variables identified by this second analysis are added to create our final time-fixed multivariable model. Using a forward-selection algorithm we search for possible improvements in fit by adding time-varying covariates. The first part to create a final time-fixed model does not require the use of MFP. A model may be given from ‘outside’ or a different strategy may be preferred for this part. This broadens the scope of the time-varying part. To motivate and illustrate the methodology, we create prognostic models from a large database of patients with primary breast cancer. Non-linear time-fixed effects are found for progesterone receptor status and number of positive lymph nodes. Highly statistically significant time-varying effects are present for progesterone receptor status and tumour size. (© 2007 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim)