Reflection on modern methods: when is a stepped-wedge cluster randomized trial a good study design choice?

Int J Epidemiol. 2020 Jun 1;49(3):1043-1052. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyaa077.


The stepped-wedge cluster randomized trial (SW-CRT) involves the sequential transition of clusters (such as hospitals, public health units or communities) from control to intervention conditions in a randomized order. The use of the SW-CRT is growing rapidly. Yet the SW-CRT is at greater risks of bias compared with the conventional parallel cluster randomized trial (parallel-CRT). For this reason, the CONSORT extension for SW-CRTs requires that investigators provide a clear justification for the choice of study design. In this paper, we argue that all other things being equal, the SW-CRT is at greater risk of bias due to misspecification of the secular trends at the analysis stage. This is particularly problematic for studies randomizing a small number of heterogeneous clusters. We outline the potential conditions under which an SW-CRT might be an appropriate choice. Potentially appropriate and often overlapping justifications for conducting an SW-CRT include: (i) the SW-CRT provides a means to conduct a randomized evaluation which otherwise would not be possible; (ii) the SW-CRT facilitates cluster recruitment as it enhances the acceptability of a randomized evaluation either to cluster gatekeepers or other stakeholders; (iii) the SW-CRT is the only feasible design due to pragmatic and logistical constraints (for example the roll-out of a scare resource); and (iv) the SW-CRT has increased statistical power over other study designs (which will include situations with a limited number of clusters). As the number of arguments in favour of an SW-CRT increases, the likelihood that the benefits of using the SW-CRT, as opposed to a parallel-CRT, outweigh its risks also increases. We argue that the mere popularity and novelty of the SW-CRT should not be a factor in its adoption. In situations when a conventional parallel-CRT is feasible, it is likely to be the preferred design.

Keywords: Cluster randomized trial; design justification; stepped-wedge.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cluster Analysis
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic* / methods
  • Research Design* / standards