Intention-to-treat. What is the question?

Nutr Metab (Lond). 2009 Jan 9;6:1. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-6-1.


It has become commonplace for Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) to be analyzed according to Intention-to-Treat (ITT) principles in which data from all subjects are used regardless of the subjects' adherence to protocol. While ITT analyses can provide useful information in some cases, they do not answer the question that motivates many RCTs, namely, whether the treatments differ in efficacy. ITT tends to reduce information by combining two questions, whether the intervention is effective and whether, as implemented, it has good compliance. Because these questions may be separate there is a risk of misuse. Two examples are presented that demonstrate this potential for abuse: a study on the effectiveness of vitamin E in reducing cardiovascular risk and comparisons of low fat and low carbohydrate diets. In the first case, a treatment that is demonstrably effective is described as without merit. In the second, ITT describes as the same, two diets that actually have different outcomes. These misuses of ITT are not atypical and are not technical problems in statistics but have real consequences for scientific principles and health recommendations. ITT analyses may answer the question of what happens when treatments are recommended but are inappropriate where separate information on adherence and performance is available. It is proposed that results of RCTs, or any experimental study, be reported, not in terms of the analyses that were performed, but rather in terms of the questions that the analyses can answer properly.

Publication types

  • Editorial