Background: Three arguments are usually invoked in favour of stepped wedge cluster randomised controlled trials: the logistic convenience of implementing an intervention in phases, the ethical benefit of providing the intervention to all clusters, and the potential to enhance the social acceptability of cluster randomised controlled trials. Are these alleged benefits real? We explored the logistic, ethical, and political dimensions of stepped wedge trials using case studies of six recent evaluations.
Methods: We identified completed or ongoing stepped wedge evaluations using two systematic reviews. We then purposively selected six with a focus on public health in high, middle, and low-income settings. We interviewed their authors about the logistic, ethical, and social issues faced by their teams. Two authors reviewed interview transcripts, identified emerging issues through qualitative thematic analysis, reflected upon them in the context of the literature, and invited all participants to co-author the manuscript.
Results: Our analysis raises three main points. First, the phased implementation of interventions can alleviate problems linked to simultaneous roll-out, but also brings new challenges. Issues to consider include the feasibility of organising intervention activities according to a randomised sequence, estimating time lags in implementation and effects, and accommodating policy changes during the trial period. Second, stepped wedge trials, like parallel cluster trials, require equipoise: without it, randomising participants to a control condition, even for a short time, remains problematic. In stepped wedge trials, equipoise is likely to lie in the degree of effect, effectiveness in a specific operational milieu, and the balance of benefit and harm, including the social value of better evaluation. Third, the strongest arguments for a stepped wedge design are logistic and political rather than ethical. The design is advantageous when simultaneous roll-out is impractical and when it increases the acceptability of using counterfactuals.
Conclusions: The logistic convenience of phased implementation is context-dependent, and may be vitiated by the additional requirements of phasing. The potential for stepped wedge trials to enhance the social acceptability of cluster randomised trials is real, but their ethical legitimacy still rests on demonstrating equipoise and its configuration for each research question and setting.