Background: Evidence suggests that cluster randomized trials are often poorly designed and analysed. There is little recent research on the methodologic quality of cluster randomized trials and none focuses on primary health care where these trials are increasingly common.
Methods: We conducted a systematic review of recent cluster randomized trials in primary health care, searching the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register. We also searched for unpublished trials in conference proceedings, and the UK National Research Register. We assess methodologic quality using a checklist, articulate problems facing investigators conducting these trials, and examine the extent to which carrying out a cluster randomized trial (as opposed to an individually randomized trial) in primary care may reduce power.
Results: We found 367 trial reports. Many trials were reported more than once. We characterize 152 independent cluster randomized trials in primary health care published between 1997 and 2000, and briefly describe 47 trials unpublished at December 2000. The quality of design and analysis was variable. Of published trials reporting sample size calculations 20% accounted for clustering in these calculations, 59% of published trials accounted for clustering in analyses. Unpublished trials were more recent and of higher quality. Reporting quality was better in journals reporting more cluster randomized trials. Many trial investigators reported problems with adherence to protocol, recruitment and type of intervention.
Conclusions: Methodologic quality of cluster randomized trials in primary health care is variable and reporting needs improvement. The use of cluster randomization should be indicated in the title or abstract so these kinds of trials are easier to identify. Communicating appropriate methodology to health care researchers continues to be a challenge. Cluster randomized trials should always be piloted and information from pilots and unsuccessful trials shared more widely.