Nonadherence to treatment protocol in published randomised controlled trials: a review

Trials. 2012 Jun 18;13:84. doi: 10.1186/1745-6215-13-84.


This review aimed to ascertain the extent to which nonadherence to treatment protocol is reported and addressed in a cohort of published analyses of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). One hundred publications of RCTs, randomly selected from those published in BMJ, New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet during 2008, were reviewed to determine the extent and nature of reported nonadherence to treatment protocol, and whether statistical methods were used to examine the effect of such nonadherence on both benefit and harms analyses. We also assessed the quality of trial reporting of treatment protocol nonadherence and the quality of reporting of the statistical analysis methods used to investigate such nonadherence. Nonadherence to treatment protocol was reported in 98 of the 100 trials, but reporting on such nonadherence was often vague or incomplete. Forty-two publications did not state how many participants started their randomised treatment. Reporting of treatment initiation and completeness was judged to be inadequate in 64% of trials with short-term interventions and 89% of trials with long-term interventions. More than half (51) of the 98 trials with treatment protocol nonadherence implemented some statistical method to address this issue, most commonly based on per protocol analysis (46) but often labelled as intention to treat (ITT) or modified ITT (23 analyses in 22 trials). The composition of analysis sets for their benefit outcomes were not explained in 57% of trials, and 62% of trials that presented harms analyses did not define harms analysis populations. The majority of defined harms analysis populations (18 out of 26 trials, 69%) were based on actual treatment received, while the majority of trials with undefined harms analysis populations (31 out of 43 trials, 72%) appeared to analyse harms using the ITT approach. Adherence to randomised intervention is poorly considered in the reporting and analysis of published RCTs. The majority of trials are subject to various forms of nonadherence to treatment protocol, and though trialists deal with this nonadherence using a variety of statistical methods and analysis populations, they rarely consider the potential for bias introduced. There is a need for increased awareness of more appropriate causal methods to adjust for departures from treatment protocol, as well as guidance on the appropriate analysis population to use for harms outcomes in the presence of such nonadherence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Medication Adherence / statistics & numerical data*
  • Publishing / standards*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / standards
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data*
  • Research Design