Cluster randomized controlled trials in primary care: an introduction

Andrew W Murphy, Adrian Esterman, Louis S Pilotto
European Journal of General Practice 2006, 12 (2): 70-3

BACKGROUND: Cluster randomized trials occur when groups or clusters of individuals, rather than the individuals themselves, are randomized to intervention and control groups and outcomes are measured on individuals within those clusters. Within primary care, between 1997 and 2000, there has been a virtual doubling in the number of published cluster randomized trials. A recent systematic review, specifically within primary care, found study quality to be both generally lower than that reported elsewhere and not to have shown any recent quality improvement.

OBJECTIVE: To discuss the design, conduct and analysis of cluster randomized trials within primary care in terms of the appropriate expertise required, potential bias, ethical considerations and expense.

DISCUSSION: Compared with trials that involve the randomization of individual participants, cluster randomized trials are more complex to design and analyse and, for a given sample size, have decreased power and a broadening of confidence intervals. Cluster randomized trials are specifically prone to potential bias at two levels-the cluster and individual. Regarding the former, it is recommended that cluster allocation be undertaken by a party independent to the research team and careful consideration be given to ensure minimal cluster attrition. Bias at the individual level can be overcome by identifying trial participants before randomization and at this time obtaining consent for intervention, data collection or both. A unique ethical aspect to cluster randomized trials is that cluster leaders may consent to the trial on behalf of potential cluster members. Additional costs of cluster randomized trials include the increased number of patients required, the complexity in their design and conduct and, usually, the need to recruit clusters de novo.

CONCLUSION: Cluster randomized trials are a powerful and increasingly popular research tool. They are uniquely placed for the conduct of research within primary-care clusters where intracluster contamination can occur. Associated methodological issues are straightforward and surmountable and just need careful consideration and management.

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