Performance of informative priors skeptical of large treatment effects in clinical trials: A simulation study

Stat Methods Med Res. 2018 Jan;27(1):79-96. doi: 10.1177/0962280215620828. Epub 2015 Dec 13.


One of the main advantages of Bayesian analyses of clinical trials is their ability to formally incorporate skepticism about large treatment effects through the use of informative priors. We conducted a simulation study to assess the performance of informative normal, Student- t, and beta distributions in estimating relative risk (RR) or odds ratio (OR) for binary outcomes. Simulation scenarios varied the prior standard deviation (SD; level of skepticism of large treatment effects), outcome rate in the control group, true treatment effect, and sample size. We compared the priors with regards to bias, mean squared error (MSE), and coverage of 95% credible intervals. Simulation results show that the prior SD influenced the posterior to a greater degree than the particular distributional form of the prior. For RR, priors with a 95% interval of 0.50-2.0 performed well in terms of bias, MSE, and coverage under most scenarios. For OR, priors with a wider 95% interval of 0.23-4.35 had good performance. We recommend the use of informative priors that exclude implausibly large treatment effects in analyses of clinical trials, particularly for major outcomes such as mortality.

Keywords: Bayesian analysis; binary data; clinical trial; informative priors; large treatment effects; robust priors.

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem*
  • Bias*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic* / statistics & numerical data
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Models, Statistical
  • Regression Analysis
  • Treatment Outcome*