An audit of sample sizes for pilot and feasibility trials being undertaken in the United Kingdom registered in the United Kingdom Clinical Research Network database

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2013 Aug 20;13:104. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-13-104.


Background: There is little published guidance as to the sample size required for a pilot or feasibility trial despite the fact that a sample size justification is a key element in the design of a trial. A sample size justification should give the minimum number of participants needed in order to meet the objectives of the trial. This paper seeks to describe the target sample sizes set for pilot and feasibility randomised controlled trials, currently running within the United Kingdom.

Methods: Data were gathered from the United Kingdom Clinical Research Network (UKCRN) database using the search terms 'pilot' and 'feasibility'. From this search 513 studies were assessed for eligibility of which 79 met the inclusion criteria. Where the data summary on the UKCRN Database was incomplete, data were also gathered from: the International Standardised Randomised Controlled Trial Number (ISRCTN) register; the website and the website of the funders. For 62 of the trials, it was necessary to contact members of the research team by email to ensure completeness.

Results: Of the 79 trials analysed, 50 (63.3%) were labelled as pilot trials, 25 (31.6%) feasibility and 14 were described as both pilot and feasibility trials. The majority had two arms (n = 68, 86.1%) and the two most common endpoints were continuous (n = 45, 57.0%) and dichotomous (n = 31, 39.2%). Pilot trials were found to have a smaller sample size per arm (median = 30, range = 8 to 114 participants) than feasibility trials (median = 36, range = 10 to 300 participants). By type of endpoint, across feasibility and pilot trials, the median sample size per arm was 36 (range = 10 to 300 participants) for trials with a dichotomous endpoint and 30 (range = 8 to 114 participants) for trials with a continuous endpoint. Publicly funded pilot trials appear to be larger than industry funded pilot trials: median sample sizes of 33 (range = 15 to 114 participants) and 25 (range = 8 to 100 participants) respectively.

Conclusion: All studies should have a sample size justification. Not all studies however need to have a sample size calculation. For pilot and feasibility trials, while a sample size justification is important, a formal sample size calculation may not be appropriate. The results in this paper describe the observed sample sizes in feasibility and pilot randomised controlled trials on the UKCRN Database.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research
  • Databases, Factual
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Humans
  • Pilot Projects
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*
  • Sample Size
  • United Kingdom