We explore the potential of Bayesian hierarchical modelling for the analysis of cluster randomized trials with binary outcome data, and apply the methods to a trial randomized by general practice. An approximate relationship is derived between the intracluster correlation coefficient (ICC) and the between-cluster variance used in a hierarchical logistic regression model. By constructing an informative prior for the ICC on the basis of available information, we are thus able implicitly to specify an informative prior for the between-cluster variance. The approach also provides us with a credible interval for the ICC for binary outcome data. Several approaches to constructing informative priors from empirical ICC values are described. We investigate the sensitivity of results to the prior specified and find that the estimate of intervention effect changes very little in this data set, while its interval estimate is more sensitive. The Bayesian approach allows us to assume distributions other than normality for the random effects used to model the clustering. This enables us to gain insight into the robustness of our parameter estimates to the classical normality assumption. In a model with a more complex variance structure, Bayesian methods can provide credible intervals for a difference between two variance components, in order for example to investigate whether the effect of intervention varies across clusters. We compare our results with those obtained from classical estimation, discuss the relative merits of the Bayesian framework, and conclude that the flexibility of the Bayesian approach offers some substantial advantages, although selection of prior distributions is not straightforward.
Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.