Synthetic Control Methods for the Evaluation of Single-Unit Interventions in Epidemiology: A Tutorial

Bonander, C., Humphreys, D., & Degli Esposti, M. (2021). Synthetic control methods for the evaluation of single-unit interventions in epidemiology: a tutorial. American journal of epidemiology190(12), 2700-2711.


Evaluating the impacts of population-level interventions (e.g., changes to state legislation) can be challenging as conducting randomized experiments is often impractical and inappropriate, especially in settings where the intervention is implemented in a single, aggregate unit (e.g., a country or state). A common nonrandomized alternative is to compare outcomes in the treated unit(s) with unexposed controls both before and after the intervention. However, the validity of these designs depends on the use of controls that closely resemble the treated unit on before-intervention characteristics and trends on the outcome, and suitable controls may be difficult to find because the number of potential control regions is typically limited. The synthetic control method provides a potential solution to these problems by using a data-driven algorithm to identify an optimal weighted control unit-a “synthetic control”-based on data from before the intervention from available control units. While popular in the social sciences, the method has not garnered as much attention in health research, perhaps due to a lack of accessible texts aimed at health researchers. We address this gap by providing a comprehensive, nontechnical tutorial on the synthetic control method, using a worked example evaluating Florida’s “stand your ground” law to illustrate methodological and practical considerations.


Keywords: causal inference; internal validity; panel data; program evaluation; quasi-experiments.