What is meant by intention to treat analysis? Survey of published randomised controlled trials

BMJ. 1999 Sep 11;319(7211):670-4. doi: 10.1136/bmj.319.7211.670.


Objectives: To assess the methodological quality of intention to treat analysis as reported in randomised controlled trials in four large medical journals.

Design: Survey of all reports of randomised controlled trials published in 1997 in the BMJ, Lancet, JAMA, and New England Journal of Medicine.

Main outcome measures: Methods of dealing with deviations from random allocation and missing data.

Results: 119 (48%) of the reports mentioned intention to treat analysis. Of these, 12 excluded any patients who did not start the allocated intervention and three did not analyse all randomised subjects as allocated. Five reports explicitly stated that there were no deviations from random allocation. The remaining 99 reports seemed to analyse according to random allocation, but only 34 of these explicitly stated this. 89 (75%) trials had some missing data on the primary outcome variable. The methods used to deal with this were generally inadequate, potentially leading to a biased treatment effect. 29 (24%) trials had more than 10% of responses missing for the primary outcome, the methods of handling the missing responses were similar in this subset.

Conclusions: The intention to treat approach is often inadequately described and inadequately applied. Authors should explicitly describe the handling of deviations from randomised allocation and missing responses and discuss the potential effect of any missing response. Readers should critically assess the validity of reported intention to treat analyses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Data Collection
  • Decision Making
  • Patient Selection
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / methods
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / standards*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Treatment Refusal