BMC Med Res Methodol. 2022 Jun 11;22(1):169. doi: 10.1186/s12874-022-01638-1.
BACKGROUND: Separation or monotone likelihood may exist in fitting process of the accelerated failure time (AFT) model using maximum likelihood approach when sample size is small and/or rate of censoring is high (rare event) or there is at least one strong covariate in the model, resulting in infinite estimates of at least one regression coefficient.
METHODS: This paper investigated the properties of the maximum likelihood estimator (MLE) of the regression parameters of the AFT models for small sample and/or rare-event situation and addressed the problems by introducing a penalized likelihood approach. The penalized likelihood function and the corresponding score equation is derived by adding a penalty term to the existing likelihood function, which was originally proposed by Firth (Biometrika, 1993) for the exponential family models. Further, a post-hoc adjustment of intercept and scale parameters is discussed keeping them out of penalization to ensure accurate prediction of survival probability. The penalized method was illustrated for the widely used log-location-scale family models such as Weibull, Log-normal and Log-logistic distributions and compared the models and methods uisng an extensive simulation study.
RESULTS: The simulation study, performed separately for each of the log-location-scale models, showed that Firth’s penalized likelihood succeeded to solve the problem of separation and achieve convergence, providing finite estimates of the regression coefficients, which are not often possible by the MLE. Furthermore, the proposed penalized method showed substantial improvement over MLE by providing smaller amount of bias, mean squared error (MSE), narrower confidence interval and reasonably accurate prediction of survival probabilities. The methods are illustrated using prostate cancer data with existence of separation, and results supported the simulation findings.
CONCLUSION: When sample size is small (≤ 50) or event is rare (i.e., censoring proportion is high) and/or there is any evidence of separation in the data, we recommend to use Firth’s penalized likelihood method for fitting AFT model.