Identifying research priorities for effective retention strategies in clinical trials

Trials. 2017 Aug 31;18(1):406. doi: 10.1186/s13063-017-2132-z.


Background: The failure to retain patients or collect primary-outcome data is a common challenge for trials and reduces the statistical power and potentially introduces bias into the analysis. Identifying strategies to minimise missing data was the second highest methodological research priority in a Delphi survey of the Directors of UK Clinical Trial Units (CTUs) and is important to minimise waste in research. Our aim was to assess the current retention practices within the UK and priorities for future research to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to reduce attrition.

Methods: Seventy-five chief investigators of NIHR Health Technology Assessment (HTA)-funded trials starting between 2009 and 2012 were surveyed to elicit their awareness about causes of missing data within their trial and recommended practices for improving retention. Forty-seven CTUs registered within the UKCRC network were surveyed separately to identify approaches and strategies being used to mitigate missing data across trials. Responses from the current practice surveys were used to inform a subsequent two-round Delphi survey with registered CTUs. A consensus list of retention research strategies was produced and ranked by priority.

Results: Fifty out of seventy-five (67%) chief investigators and 33/47 (70%) registered CTUs completed the current practice surveys. Seventy-eight percent of trialists were aware of retention challenges and implemented strategies at trial design. Patient-initiated withdrawal was the most common cause of missing data. Registered CTUs routinely used newsletters, timeline of participant visits, and telephone reminders to mitigate missing data. Whilst 36 out of 59 strategies presented had been formally or informally evaluated, some frequently used strategies, such as site initiation training, have had no research to inform practice. Thirty-five registered CTUs (74%) participated in the Delphi survey. Research into the effectiveness of site initiation training, frequency of patient contact during a trial, the use of routinely collected data, the frequency and timing of reminders, triggered site training and the time needed to complete questionnaires was deemed critical. Research into the effectiveness of Christmas cards for site staff was not of critical importance.

Conclusion: The surveys of current practices demonstrates that a variety of strategies are being used to mitigate missing data but with little evidence to support their use. Six retention strategies were deemed critically important within the Delphi survey and should be a primary focus of future retention research.

Keywords: Attrition; Clinical trials; Missing data; Missing data strategies; Retention; Study design.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Trials as Topic / methods*
  • Delphi Technique
  • Humans
  • Motivation
  • Patient Dropouts
  • Patient Selection*
  • Sample Size
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Technology Assessment, Biomedical / methods*
  • United Kingdom