Background: Blinding is a cornerstone of therapeutic evaluation because lack of blinding can bias treatment effect estimates. An inventory of the blinding methods would help trialists conduct high-quality clinical trials and readers appraise the quality of results of published trials. We aimed to systematically classify and describe methods to establish and maintain blinding of patients and health care providers and methods to obtain blinding of outcome assessors in randomized controlled trials of pharmacologic treatments.
Methods and findings: We undertook a systematic review of all reports of randomized controlled trials assessing pharmacologic treatments with blinding published in 2004 in high impact-factor journals from Medline and the Cochrane Methodology Register. We used a standardized data collection form to extract data. The blinding methods were classified according to whether they primarily (1) established blinding of patients or health care providers, (2) maintained the blinding of patients or health care providers, and (3) obtained blinding of assessors of the main outcomes. We identified 819 articles, with 472 (58%) describing the method of blinding. Methods to establish blinding of patients and/or health care providers concerned mainly treatments provided in identical form, specific methods to mask some characteristics of the treatments (e.g., added flavor or opaque coverage), or use of double dummy procedures or simulation of an injection. Methods to avoid unblinding of patients and/or health care providers involved use of active placebo, centralized assessment of side effects, patients informed only in part about the potential side effects of each treatment, centralized adapted dosage, or provision of sham results of complementary investigations. The methods reported for blinding outcome assessors mainly relied on a centralized assessment of complementary investigations, clinical examination (i.e., use of video, audiotape, or photography), or adjudication of clinical events.
Conclusions: This review classifies blinding methods and provides a detailed description of methods that could help trialists overcome some barriers to blinding in clinical trials and readers interpret the quality of pharmacologic trials.