Imputation Strategies for Missing Continuous Outcomes in Cluster Randomized Trials

Biom J. 2008 Jun;50(3):329-45. doi: 10.1002/bimj.200710423.


In cluster randomized trials, intact social units such as schools, worksites or medical practices - rather than individuals themselves - are randomly allocated to intervention and control conditions, while the outcomes of interest are then observed on individuals within each cluster. Such trials are becoming increasingly common in the fields of health promotion and health services research. Attrition is a common occurrence in randomized trials, and a standard approach for dealing with the resulting missing values is imputation. We consider imputation strategies for missing continuous outcomes, focusing on trials with a completely randomized design in which fixed cohorts from each cluster are enrolled prior to random assignment. We compare five different imputation strategies with respect to Type I and Type II error rates of the adjusted two-sample t -test for the intervention effect. Cluster mean imputation is compared with multiple imputation, using either within-cluster data or data pooled across clusters in each intervention group. In the case of pooling across clusters, we distinguish between standard multiple imputation procedures which do not account for intracluster correlation and a specialized procedure which does account for intracluster correlation but is not yet available in standard statistical software packages. A simulation study is used to evaluate the influence of cluster size, number of clusters, degree of intracluster correlation, and variability among cluster follow-up rates. We show that cluster mean imputation yields valid inferences and given its simplicity, may be an attractive option in some large community intervention trials which are subject to individual-level attrition only; however, it may yield less powerful inferences than alternative procedures which pool across clusters especially when the cluster sizes are small and cluster follow-up rates are highly variable. When pooling across clusters, the imputation procedure should generally take intracluster correlation into account to obtain valid inferences; however, as long as the intracluster correlation coefficient is small, we show that standard multiple imputation procedures may yield acceptable type I error rates; moreover, these procedures may yield more powerful inferences than a specialized procedure, especially when the number of available clusters is small. Within-cluster multiple imputation is shown to be the least powerful among the procedures considered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Weight
  • Cluster Analysis*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Computer Simulation
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Patient Dropouts
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / methods*