Background: Process evaluations are increasingly conducted within pragmatic randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of health services interventions and provide vital information to enhance understanding of RCT findings. However, issues pertaining to process evaluation in this specific context have been little discussed. We aimed to describe the frequency, characteristics, labelling, value, practical conduct issues, and accessibility of published process evaluations within pragmatic RCTs in health services research.
Methods: We used a 2-phase systematic search process to (1) identify an index sample of journal articles reporting primary outcome results of pragmatic RCTs published in 2015 and then (2) identify all associated publications. We used an operational definition of process evaluation based on the Medical Research Council's process evaluation framework to identify both process evaluations reported separately and process data reported in the trial results papers. We extracted and analysed quantitative and qualitative data to answer review objectives.
Results: From an index sample of 31 pragmatic RCTs, we identified 17 separate process evaluation studies. These had varied characteristics and only three were labelled 'process evaluation'. Each of the 31 trial results papers also reported process data, with a median of five different process evaluation components per trial. Reported barriers and facilitators related to real-world collection of process data, recruitment of participants to process evaluations, and health services research regulations. We synthesised a wide range of reported benefits of process evaluations to interventions, trials, and wider knowledge. Visibility was often poor, with 13/17 process evaluations not mentioned in the trial results paper and 12/16 process evaluation journal articles not appearing in the trial registry.
Conclusions: In our sample of reviewed pragmatic RCTs, the meaning of the label 'process evaluation' appears uncertain, and the scope and significance of the term warrant further research and clarification. Although there were many ways in which the process evaluations added value, they often had poor visibility. Our findings suggest approaches that could enhance the planning and utility of process evaluations in the context of pragmatic RCTs.
Trial registration: Not applicable for PROSPERO registration.
Keywords: Health services research; Pragmatic randomised controlled trials; Process evaluation.