Background: Chance imbalance in baseline prognosis of a randomized controlled trial can lead to over or underestimation of treatment effects, particularly in trials with small sample sizes. Our study aimed to (1) evaluate the probability of imbalance in a binary prognostic factor (PF) between two treatment arms, (2) investigate the impact of prognostic imbalance on the estimation of a treatment effect, and (3) examine the effect of sample size (n) in relation to the first two objectives.
Methods: We simulated data from parallel-group trials evaluating a binary outcome by varying the risk of the outcome, effect of the treatment, power and prevalence of the PF, and n. Logistic regression models with and without adjustment for the PF were compared in terms of bias, standard error, coverage of confidence interval and statistical power.
Results: For a PF with a prevalence of 0.5, the probability of a difference in the frequency of the PF≥5% reaches 0.42 with 125/arm. Ignoring a strong PF (relative risk = 5) leads to underestimating the strength of a moderate treatment effect, and the underestimate is independent of n when n is >50/arm. Adjusting for such PF increases statistical power. If the PF is weak (RR = 2), adjustment makes little difference in statistical inference. Conditional on a 5% imbalance of a powerful PF, adjustment reduces the likelihood of large bias. If an absolute measure of imbalance ≥5% is deemed important, including 1000 patients/arm provides sufficient protection against such an imbalance. Two thousand patients/arm may provide an adequate control against large random deviations in treatment effect estimation in the presence of a powerful PF.
Conclusions: The probability of prognostic imbalance in small trials can be substantial. Covariate adjustment improves estimation accuracy and statistical power, and hence should be performed when strong PFs are observed.