Intermediate outcomes in randomized clinical trials: an introduction
Reproductive Health Research Department, World Health Organization, Geneva 27 1211, Switzerland
Trials 2013, 14:78 doi:10.1186/1745-6215-14-78Published: 19 March 2013
Intermediate outcomes are common and typically on the causal pathway to the final outcome. Some examples include noncompliance, missing data, and truncation by death like pregnancy (e.g. when the trial intervention is given to non-pregnant women and the final outcome is preeclampsia, defined only on pregnant women). The intention-to-treat approach does not account properly for them, and more appropriate alternative approaches like principal stratification are not yet widely known. The purposes of this study are to inform researchers that the intention-to-treat approach unfortunately does not fit all problems we face in experimental research, to introduce the principal stratification approach for dealing with intermediate outcomes, and to illustrate its application to a trial of long term calcium supplementation in women at high risk of preeclampsia.
Principal stratification and related concepts are introduced. Two ways for estimating causal effects are discussed and their application is illustrated using the calcium trial, where noncompliance and pregnancy are considered as intermediate outcomes, and preeclampsia is the main final outcome.
The limitations of traditional approaches and methods for dealing with intermediate outcomes are demonstrated. The steps, assumptions and required calculations involved in the application of the principal stratification approach are discussed in detail in the case of our calcium trial.
The intention-to-treat approach is a very sound one but unfortunately it does not fit all problems we find in randomized clinical trials; this is particularly the case for intermediate outcomes, where alternative approaches like principal stratification should be considered.