Cancer Center Shared Resources: Observational Methods

Below, the Observational Methods team (left to right): Emily McGinley, MS; Tina Yen, MD, MS; Elizabeth Smith, MS, PhD; Rodney Sparapani, PhD.

The MCW Cancer Center creates value for members by building, supporting, or collaborating with resources that support basic and translational cancer research. These Shared Resources are not otherwise available to individual investigators or projects due to expense, complexity, limited expertise, or lack of space.

This month we are highlighting two important Shared Resources: the Biostatistical Consulting Service and Observational Methods>.

The Observational Methods Shared Resource provides information to support cancer research, grant application, and publication in high-impact journals, through access to specialized services and expertise in the use of large databases.

This Shared Resource is particularly valuable to Cancer Center members with interest in Population Health, epidemiology, health services, and clinical trial design. The resource provides access to data that are useful particularly for cancer investigators who perform research focused on health services, comparative effectiveness, and outcomes.

The services provided by this resource help to translate cancer clinical trial results into everyday clinical practice and health decision making. By utilizing large secondary databases, observational database research examines the “real world” effectiveness and comparative effectiveness of cancer treatments proven to demonstrate efficacy in randomized clinical trials. The Observational Methods Shared Resource is crucial to ensuring the success of these studies by providing access to specialized services and expertise, as well as providing mentorship and enhancing the scientific interaction and productivity of researchers who perform observational database research.

Led by Tina Yen, MD, MS, a surgical oncologist, and staffed by three PhD and Master’s level biostatisticians (Elizabeth Smith, MS, PhD, Rodney Sparapani, PhD, and Emily McGinley, MS), this Shared Resource provides high quality services, outlined below, that ensure the most appropriate and effective use of large datasets. The faculty and staff meet with individual investigators to determine project feasibility, based on the investigator’s research aims, specific data needs, and available datasets. The Shared Resource will assist with basic data manipulation and analyses to provide essential information such as study feasibility, preliminary data for grant applications, and proper sampling frames for projects that will require primary data acquisition. In addition, the Shared Resource will facilitate the use of specific methods (e.g., propensity scores, instrumental variables) that are state of the art for the appropriate use of observational databases in order to avoid bias in the results.

Currently funded by an Advancing Healthier Wisconsin (AHW) grant, all of these services are available at no cost to Cancer Center members and MCW faculty.

The Observational Methods Shared Resource maintains three large servers to house the databases used to support cancer research and maintains elaborate data security requirements to ensure the security and privacy of all stored data. Examples of currently available dataset include cancer-specific registries (e.g., Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER), SEER-Medicare, state tumor registries), administrative databases (e.g., Medicare), and provider-related databases (e.g., American Medical Association’s Physician Professional database, American Hospital Association’s Annual Survey, Area Resource File). In addition, the Shared Resource works closely with MCW’s Institute for Health and Society’s Epidemiology Data Resource Center and MCW's and Children’s Hospital Center for Clinical Effectiveness Research to ensure that investigators are aware of all available secondary datasets at this institution. If any new datasets need to be purchased, the Observational Methods Shared Resource will assist investigators with the application process and will house and maintain these datasets.

The Observational Methods Shared Resource is a resource unique to the Cancer Center. The resource provides an individualized approach to projects and has a talented team and the necessary equipment to effectively support multiple groups and programs interested in performing high-quality observational database research.

If you have questions about this shared resource or seek assistance with a potential project, please contact Dr. Tina Yen at



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Page Updated 02/10/2017