State of the evidence: a survey of global disparities in clinical trials

BMJ Glob Health. 2021 Jan;6(1):e004145. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2020-004145.


Introduction: Ideally, health conditions causing the greatest global disease burden should attract increased research attention. We conducted a comprehensive global study investigating the number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) published on different health conditions, and how this compares with the global disease burden that they impose.

Methods: We use machine learning to monitor PubMed daily, and find and analyse RCT reports. We assessed RCTs investigating the leading causes of morbidity and mortality from the Global Burden of Disease study. Using regression models, we compared numbers of actual RCTs in different health conditions to numbers predicted from their global disease burden (disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)). We investigated whether RCT numbers differed for conditions disproportionately affecting countries with lower socioeconomic development.

Results: We estimate 463 000 articles describing RCTs (95% prediction interval 439 000 to 485 000) were published from 1990 to July 2020. RCTs recruited a median of 72 participants (IQR 32-195). 82% of RCTs were conducted by researchers in the top fifth of countries by socio-economic development. As DALYs increased for a particular health condition by 10%, the number of RCTs in the same year increased by 5% (3.2%-6.9%), but the association was weak (adjusted R2=0.13). Conditions disproportionately affecting countries with lower socioeconomic development, including respiratory infections and tuberculosis (7000 RCTs below predicted) and enteric infections (9700 RCTs below predicted), appear relatively under-researched for their disease burden. Each 10% shift in DALYs towards countries with low and middle socioeconomic development was associated with a 4% reduction in RCTs (3.7%-4.9%). These disparities have not changed substantially over time.

Conclusion: Research priorities are not well optimised to reduce the global burden of disease. Most RCTs are produced by highly developed countries, and the health needs of these countries have been, on average, favoured.

Keywords: geographic information systems; randomised control trial.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Disabled Persons*
  • Global Burden of Disease
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Respiratory Tract Infections*