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What are cohort studies?
  1. David Barrett1,
  2. Helen Noble2
  1. 1 Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull, Hull, UK
  2. 2 School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Barrett, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull, Hull HU6 7RX, UK; D.I.Barrett{at}

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In 1951, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford-Hill commenced a ground-breaking research project by writing to all registered doctors in the UK to ask about their smoking habits. The British Doctors Study recruited and followed-up over 40 000 participants, monitoring mortality rates and causes of death over the subsequent years and decades. Even by the time of the first set of preliminary results in 1954, there was evidence to link smoking with lung cancer and increased mortality.1 Over the following decades, the study provided further definitive evidence of the health risks from smoking, and was extended to explore other causes of death (eg, heart disease) and other behavioural variables (eg, alcohol intake).

The Doctors Health Survey is one of the largest, most ambitious and best-known cohort studies and demonstrates the value of this approach in supporting our understanding of disease risk. However, as a method, cohort studies can have much wider applications. This article provides an overview of cohort studies, identifying the opportunities and challenges they present to researchers, and the role they play in developing the evidence base for nursing and healthcare more broadly.

What are cohort studies?

Cohort studies are a type of longitudinal study—an approach that follows research participants over a period of time (often many years). Specifically, cohort studies recruit and follow participants who share a common characteristic, such as a particular occupation or demographic similarity. During the period of follow-up, some of the cohort will be exposed to a specific risk factor or characteristic; by measuring outcomes over a period of time, it is then possible …

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