A case-control study is designed to help determine if an exposure is associated with an outcome (i.e., disease or condition of interest). In theory, the case-control study can be described simply. First, identify the cases (a group known to have the outcome) and the controls (a group known to be free of the outcome). Then, look back in time to learn which subjects in each group had the exposure(s), comparing the frequency of the exposure in the case group to the control group. By definition, a case-control study is always retrospective because it starts with an outcome then traces back to investigate exposures. When the subjects are enrolled in their respective groups, the outcome of each subject is already known by the investigator. This, and not the fact that the investigator usually makes use of previously collected data, is what makes case-control studies ‘retrospective’.
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