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Open Access Methodology

An approach to trial design and analysis in the era of non-proportional hazards of the treatment effect

Patrick Royston* and Mahesh KB Parmar

Author Affiliations

MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL, Aviation House, 125 Kingsway, London WC2B 6NH, UK

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Trials 2014, 15:314  doi:10.1186/1745-6215-15-314

Published: 7 August 2014

Abstract

Background

Most randomized controlled trials with a time-to-event outcome are designed and analysed under the proportional hazards assumption, with a target hazard ratio for the treatment effect in mind. However, the hazards may be non-proportional. We address how to design a trial under such conditions, and how to analyse the results.

Methods

We propose to extend the usual approach, a logrank test, to also include the Grambsch-Therneau test of proportional hazards. We test the resulting composite null hypothesis using a joint test for the hazard ratio and for time-dependent behaviour of the hazard ratio. We compute the power and sample size for the logrank test under proportional hazards, and from that we compute the power of the joint test. For the estimation of relevant quantities from the trial data, various models could be used; we advocate adopting a pre-specified flexible parametric survival model that supports time-dependent behaviour of the hazard ratio.

Results

We present the mathematics for calculating the power and sample size for the joint test. We illustrate the methodology in real data from two randomized trials, one in ovarian cancer and the other in treating cellulitis. We show selected estimates and their uncertainty derived from the advocated flexible parametric model. We demonstrate in a small simulation study that when a treatment effect either increases or decreases over time, the joint test can outperform the logrank test in the presence of both patterns of non-proportional hazards.

Conclusions

Those designing and analysing trials in the era of non-proportional hazards need to acknowledge that a more complex type of treatment effect is becoming more common. Our method for the design of the trial retains the tools familiar in the standard methodology based on the logrank test, and extends it to incorporate a joint test of the null hypothesis with power against non-proportional hazards. For the analysis of trial data, we propose the use of a pre-specified flexible parametric model that can represent a time-dependent hazard ratio if one is present.

Keywords:
Time-to-event data; Randomized controlled trials; Hazard ratio; Non-proportional hazards; Logrank test; Grambsch-Therneau test; Flexible parametric model