Background: Noninferiority trials are increasingly being performed. However, little is known about their methodological quality. We sought to characterize noninferiority cardiovascular trials published in the highest-impact journals, features that may bias results toward noninferiority, features related to reporting of noninferiority trials, and the time trends.
Methods: We identified cardiovascular noninferiority trials published in JAMA, Lancet, or New England Journal of Medicine from 1990 to 2016. Two independent reviewers extracted the data. Data elements included the noninferiority margin and the success of studies in achieving noninferiority. The proportion of trials showing major or minor features that may have affected the noninferiority inference was determined. Major factors included the lack of presenting the results in both intention-to-treat and per-protocol/as-treated cohorts, α>0.05, the new intervention not being compared with the best alternative, not justifying the noninferiority margin, and exclusion or loss of ≥10% of the cohort. Minor factors included suboptimal blinding, allocation concealment, and others.
Results: From 2544 screened studies, we identified 111 noninferiority cardiovascular trials. Noninferiority margins varied widely: risk differences of 0.4% to 25%, hazard ratios of 1.05 to 2.85, odds ratios of 1.1 to 2.0, and relative risks of 1.1 to 1.8. Eighty-six trials claimed noninferiority, of which 20 showed superiority, whereas 23 (21.1%) did not show noninferiority, of which 8 also demonstrated inferiority. Only 7 (6.3%) trials were considered low risk for all the major and minor biasing factors. Among common major factors for bias, 41 (37%) did not confirm the findings in both intention-to-treat and per-protocol/as-treated cohorts and 4 (3.6%) reported discrepant results between intention-to-treat and per-protocol analyses. Forty-three (38.7%) did not justify the noninferiority margin. Overall, 27 (24.3%) underenrolled or had >10% exclusions. Sixty trials (54.0%) were open label. Allocation concealment was not maintained or unclear in 11 (9.9%). Publication of noninferiority trials increased over time (P<0.001). Fifty-two (46.8%) were published after 2010 and had a lower risk of methodological or reporting limitations for major (P=0.03) and minor factors (P=0.002).
Conclusions: Noninferiority trials in highest-impact journals commonly conclude noninferiority of the tested intervention, but vary markedly in the selected noninferiority margin, and frequently have limitations that may impact the inference related to noninferiority.
Keywords: bias; cardiovascular; equivalence trial; models; outcome assessment; randomized controlled trial.