Determining optimal therapy--randomized trials in individual patients

N Engl J Med. 1986 Apr 3;314(14):889-92. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198604033141406.


Although the treatment of an individual patient in routine clinical practice has been likened to an experiment, the method is so susceptible to bias that we have come to demand multi-patient, double-blind, randomized controlled trials on matters of efficacy. Unfortunately, such trials have not or cannot be carried out for many clinical disorders; even when they have been executed their results may be difficult to extrapolate to individual patients. To resolve this problem, we have begun to use double-blind randomized trials in which a single patient undergoes a series of pairs of treatments, consisting of one active and one placebo or alternative treatment per pair, with the order determined by random allocation. Appropriate treatment targets (signs, symptoms, or laboratory tests) are used as the measure of efficacy, and the trial is continued until efficacy is established or disproved. We describe such a trial, which resulted in a dramatically beneficial modification of treatment in a patient with partially reversible airflow limitation. We have established a clinical service that facilitates the widespread use of the method in our community.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Asthma / drug therapy
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / methods*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Humans
  • Ipratropium / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • Random Allocation*
  • Research Design*
  • Theophylline / therapeutic use
  • Therapeutics*


  • Theophylline
  • Ipratropium