Exclusion of enrolled participants in randomised controlled trials: what to do with ineligible participants?

BMJ Open. 2020 Dec 2;10(12):e039546. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-039546.


Objective: Post-randomisation exclusions in randomised controlled trials are common and may include participants identified as not meeting trial eligibility criteria after randomisation. We report how a decision might be reached and reported on, to include or exclude these participants. We illustrate using a motivating scenario from the BREATHE trial (Trial registration ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT02426112) evaluating azithromycin for the treatment of chronic lung disease in people aged 6-19 years with HIV in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Key points: Including all enrolled and randomised participants in the primary analysis of a trial ensures an unbiased estimate of the intervention effect using intention-to-treat principles, and minimises the effects of confounding through balanced allocation to trial arm. Ineligible participants are sometimes enrolled, due to measurement or human error. Of 347 participants enrolled into the BREATHE trial, 11 (3.2%) were subsequently found to be ineligible based on lung function criteria. We assumed no safety risk of azithromycin treatment; their inclusion in the trial and subsequent analysis of the intervention effect therefore mirrors clinical practice. Senior trial investigators considered diurnal variations in the measurement of lung function, advantages of retaining a higher sample size and advice from the Data Safety and Monitoring Board and Trial Steering Committee, and decided to include these participants in primary analysis. We planned and reported analyses including and excluding these participants, and in our case the interpretation of treatment effect was consistent.

Conclusion: The decision, by senior investigators, on whether to exclude enrolled participants, should reflect issues of safety, treatment efficacy, statistical power and measurement error. As long as decisions are made prior to finalising the statistical analysis plan for the trial, the risk of exclusions creating bias should be minimal. The decision taken should be transparently reported and a sensitivity analysis can present the opposite decision.

Keywords: education & training (see medical education & training); paediatric thoracic medicine; statistics & research methods.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • COVID-19*
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Malawi
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult
  • Zimbabwe

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02426112