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General medicine
Association of study design features and treatment effects in trials of chronic medical conditions: a meta-epidemiological study


Objectives To evaluate the association of study design features and treatment effects in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating therapies for individuals with chronic medical conditions.

Design Meta-epidemiological study.

Setting RCTs from meta-analyses published in the 10 general medical journals with the highest impact factor published between 1 January 2007 and 10 June 2019 and evaluated a drug, procedure or device treatment of chronic medical conditions.

Main outcome measures The association between trial design features and the effect size, reporting a ratio of ORs (ROR) and 95% confidence interval (CI).

Results We included 1098 trials from 86 meta-analyses. The most common outcome in the trials was mortality (52%), followed by disease progression (16%) and adverse events (12%). Lack of blinding of patients and study personnel was associated with a larger treatment effect (ROR 1.12; 95% CI 1.00 to 1.25). There was no statistically significant association with random sequence generation, allocation concealment, blinding of outcome assessors, incomplete outcome data, whether trials were stopped early, study funding, type of interventions or with type of outcomes (objective vs subjective).

Conclusion The meta-epidemiological study did not demonstrate a clear pattern of association between risk of bias indicators and treatment effects in RCTs in chronic medical conditions. The unpredictability of the direction of bias emphasises the need to make every attempt to adhere to blinding, allocation concealment and reduce attrition bias.

Trial registration number Not applicable.

  • methods
  • internal medicine

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request.

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