The importance of small samples in medical research

J Postgrad Med. 2021 Oct-Dec;67(4):219-223. doi: 10.4103/jpgm.JPGM_230_21.


Almost all bio-statisticians and medical researchers believe that a large sample is always helpful in providing more reliable results. Whereas this is true for some specific cases, a large sample may not be helpful in more situations than we contemplate because of the higher possibility of errors and reduced validity. Many medical breakthroughs have occurred with self-experimentation and single experiments. Studies, particularly analytical studies, may provide more truthful results with a small sample because intensive efforts can be made to control all the confounders, wherever they operate, and sophisticated equipment can be used to obtain more accurate data. A large sample may be required only for the studies with highly variable outcomes, where an estimate of the effect size with high precision is required, or when the effect size to be detected is small. This communication underscores the importance of small samples in reaching a valid conclusion in certain situations and describes the situations where a large sample is not only unnecessary but may even compromise the validity by not being able to exercise full care in the assessments. What sample size is small depends on the context.

Keywords: Medical research; n= 1 self-experiments; small sample.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research*
  • Humans
  • Sample Size