Randomised and non-randomised studies to estimate the effect of community-level public health interventions: definitions and methodological considerations

Wolf-Peter Schmidt
Emerging Themes in Epidemiology 2017, 14: 9

BACKGROUND: The preferred method to evaluate public health interventions delivered at the level of whole communities is the cluster randomised trial (CRT). The practical limitations of CRTs and the need for alternative methods continue to be debated. There is no consensus on how to classify study designs to evaluate interventions, and how different design features are related to the strength of evidence.

ANALYSIS: This article proposes that most study designs for the evaluation of cluster-level interventions fall into four broad categories: the CRT, the non-randomised cluster trial (NCT), the controlled before-and-after study (CBA), and the before-and-after study without control (BA). A CRT needs to fulfil two basic criteria: (1) the intervention is allocated at random; (2) there are sufficient clusters to allow a statistical between-arm comparison. In a NCT, statistical comparison is made across trial arms as in a CRT, but treatment allocation is not random. The defining feature of a CBA is that intervention and control arms are not compared directly, usually because there are insufficient clusters in each arm to allow a statistical comparison. Rather, baseline and follow-up measures of the outcome of interest are compared in the intervention arm, and separately in the control arm. A BA is a CBA without a control group.

CONCLUSION: Each design may provide useful or misleading evidence. A precise baseline measurement of the outcome of interest is critical for causal inference in all studies except CRTs. Apart from statistical considerations the exploration of pre/post trends in the outcome allows a more transparent discussion of study weaknesses than is possible in non-randomised studies without a baseline measure.

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