Subgroup analysis and other (mis)uses of baseline data in clinical trials

Lancet. 2000 Mar 25;355(9209):1064-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)02039-0.


Background: Baseline data collected on each patient at randomisation in controlled clinical trials can be used to describe the population of patients, to assess comparability of treatment groups, to achieve balanced randomisation, to adjust treatment comparisons for prognostic factors, and to undertake subgroup analyses. We assessed the extent and quality of such practices in major clinical trial reports.

Methods: A sample of 50 consecutive clinical-trial reports was obtained from four major medical journals during July to September, 1997. We tabulated the detailed information on uses of baseline data by use of a standard form.

Findings: Most trials presented baseline comparability in a table. These tables were often unduly large, and about half the trials inappropriately used significance tests for baseline comparison. Methods of randomisation, including possible stratification, were often poorly described. There was little consistency over whether to use covariate adjustment and the criteria for selecting baseline factors for which to adjust were often unclear. Most trials emphasised the simple unadjusted results and covariate adjustment usually made negligible difference. Two-thirds of the reports presented subgroup findings, but mostly without appropriate statistical tests for interaction. Many reports put too much emphasis on subgroup analyses that commonly lacked statistical power.

Interpretation: Clinical trials need a predefined statistical analysis plan for uses of baseline data, especially covariate-adjusted analyses and subgroup analyses. Investigators and journals need to adopt improved standards of statistical reporting, and exercise caution when drawing conclusions from subgroup findings.

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Data Collection / statistics & numerical data*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data*