Cluster randomized trials with a small number of clusters: which analyses should be used?

Int J Epidemiol. 2018 Feb 1;47(1):321-331. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyx169.


Background: Cluster randomized trials (CRTs) are increasingly used to assess the effectiveness of health interventions. Three main analysis approaches are: cluster-level analyses, mixed-models and generalized estimating equations (GEEs). Mixed models and GEEs can lead to inflated type I error rates with a small number of clusters, and numerous small-sample corrections have been proposed to circumvent this problem. However, the impact of these methods on power is still unclear.

Methods: We performed a simulation study to assess the performance of 12 analysis approaches for CRTs with a continuous outcome and 40 or fewer clusters. These included weighted and unweighted cluster-level analyses, mixed-effects models with different degree-of-freedom corrections, and GEEs with and without a small-sample correction. We assessed these approaches across different values of the intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC), numbers of clusters and variability in cluster sizes.

Results: Unweighted and variance-weighted cluster-level analysis, mixed models with degree-of-freedom corrections, and GEE with a small-sample correction all maintained the type I error rate at or below 5% across most scenarios, whereas uncorrected approaches lead to inflated type I error rates. However, these analyses had low power (below 50% in some scenarios) when fewer than 20 clusters were randomized, with none reaching the expected 80% power.

Conclusions: Small-sample corrections or variance-weighted cluster-level analyses are recommended for the analysis of continuous outcomes in CRTs with a small number of clusters. The use of these corrections should be incorporated into the sample size calculation to prevent studies from being underpowered.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Computer Simulation
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*
  • Sample Size