Different methods to analyze stepped wedge trial designs revealed different aspects of intervention effects

J W R Twisk, E O Hoogendijk, S A Zwijsen, M R de Boer
Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 2016, 72: 75-83

OBJECTIVES: Within epidemiology, a stepped wedge trial design (i.e., a one-way crossover trial in which several arms start the intervention at different time points) is increasingly popular as an alternative to a classical cluster randomized controlled trial. Despite this increasing popularity, there is a huge variation in the methods used to analyze data from a stepped wedge trial design.

STUDY DESIGN AND SETTING: Four linear mixed models were used to analyze data from a stepped wedge trial design on two example data sets. The four methods were chosen because they have been (frequently) used in practice. Method 1 compares all the intervention measurements with the control measurements. Method 2 treats the intervention variable as a time-independent categorical variable comparing the different arms with each other. In method 3, the intervention variable is a time-dependent categorical variable comparing groups with different number of intervention measurements, whereas in method 4, the changes in the outcome variable between subsequent measurements are analyzed.

RESULTS: Regarding the results in the first example data set, methods 1 and 3 showed a strong positive intervention effect, which disappeared after adjusting for time. Method 2 showed an inverse intervention effect, whereas method 4 did not show a significant effect at all. In the second example data set, the results were the opposite. Both methods 2 and 4 showed significant intervention effects, whereas the other two methods did not. For method 4, the intervention effect attenuated after adjustment for time.

CONCLUSION: Different methods to analyze data from a stepped wedge trial design reveal different aspects of a possible intervention effect. The choice of a method partly depends on the type of the intervention and the possible time-dependent effect of the intervention. Furthermore, it is advised to combine the results of the different methods to obtain an interpretable overall result.


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