Interim data monitoring in cluster randomised trials: practical issues and a case study

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There is an abundance of guidance for the interim monitoring of individually randomised trials. While methodological literature exists on how to extend these methods to cluster randomised trials, there is little guidance on practical implementation. Cluster trials have many features which make their monitoring needs different. We outline the methodological and practical challenges of interim monitoring of cluster trials; and apply these considerations to a case study.

Case study
The E-MOTIVE study is an 80-cluster randomised trial of a bundle of interventions to treat postpartum haemorrhage. The proposed data monitoring plan includes (1) monitor sample size assumptions, (2) monitor for evidence of selection bias, and (3) an interim assessment of the primary outcome, as well as monitoring data completeness. The timing of the sample size monitoring is chosen with both consideration of statistical precision and to allow time to recruit more clusters. Monitoring for selection bias involves comparing individual-level characteristics and numbers recruited between study arms to identify any post-randomisation participant identification bias. An interim analysis of outcomes presented with 99.9% confidence intervals using the Haybittle–Peto approach should mitigate any concern regarding the inflation of type-I error. The pragmatic nature of the trial means monitoring for adherence is not relevant, as it is built into a process evaluation.

The interim analyses of cluster trials have a number of important differences to monitoring individually randomised trials. In cluster trials, there will often be a greater need to monitor nuisance parameters, yet there will often be considerable uncertainty in their estimation. This means the utility of sample size re-estimation can be questionable particularly when there are practical or funding difficulties associated with making any changes to planned sample sizes. Perhaps most importantly interim monitoring has the potential to identify selection bias, particularly in trials with post-randomisation identification or recruitment. Finally, the pragmatic nature of cluster trials might mean that the utility of methods to allow for interim monitoring of outcomes based on statistical testing, or monitoring for adherence to study interventions, are less relevant. Our intention is to facilitate the planning of future cluster randomised trials and to promote discussion and debate to improve monitoring of these studies.


Original languageEnglish
JournalClinical Trials
Early online date22 Jun 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Jun 2021