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Survival analysis of joint replacement relies on the assumption that surgical procedures in patients lost to follow-up have the same chance of failing as those in patients who continue to be assessed. Our study questions that assumption.

During the 16-year follow-up of 2268 patients who had received total hip replacements 142 (6%) were lost to follow-up. The cumulative loss at 15 years was 20%. At their last assessment, patients who subsequently failed to attend for follow-up had significantly worse pain, range of movement and opinion of their progress (p < 0.001) and significantly worse radiological features than a matched control group (p < 0.01).

Patients lost to follow-up have a worse outcome than those who continue to be assessed. Consequently, a survival analysis that does not take into account such patients is likely to give falsely optimistic results. It is therefore essential that vigorous attempts are made to minimise loss to follow-up, and that the rate of such loss is quoted. The overall loss to follow-up disguises the magnitude of the problem, which is best quantified by a cumulative rate of follow-up.

The reliability of a study can be assessed by a loss-to-follow-up quotient, calculated by the number of failures: the lower the quotient the more reliable the data. Ideally, the quotient should be less than 1.

Correspondence should be sent to Mr D.W.Murray.

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