Early-stage studies to larger-scale trials: investigators' perspectives on scaling-up childhood obesity interventions

Pilot Feasibility Stud. 2022 Feb 7;8(1):31. doi: 10.1186/s40814-022-00991-8.


Background: Pilot/feasibility studies play an important role in the development and refinement of behavioral interventions by providing information about feasibility, acceptability, and potential efficacy. Despite their importance and wide-spread use, the approaches taken by behavioral scientists to scale-up early-stage studies to larger-scale trials has received little attention. The aim of our study was to understand the role that pilot studies play in the development and execution of larger-scale trials.

Methods: We conducted interviews with childhood obesity researchers who had published pilot behavioral interventions and larger-scale trials of the same or similar interventions. Questions were asked about the role of pilot studies in developing larger-scale trials and the challenges encountered when scaling-up an intervention based upon pilot findings. Data were coded and analyzed using an inductive analytic approach to identify themes.

Results: Twenty-four interventionists (54% women, 37-70 years old, mean 20 years since terminal degree) completed a total of 148 pilot studies across their careers (mean 6.4, range 1-20), of which 59% were scaled-up. Scaling was described as resource intensive and pilot work was considered essential to successfully competing for funding by 63% of the sample (n = 15). When asked to define a high-quality pilot study, interventionists described studies that allowed them to evaluate two independent factors: components of their intervention (e.g., acceptability, feasibility) and study parameters (e.g., sample size, measures). Interventionists expressed that more process implementation measures, different study designs, and additional iterations could improve decisions to scale-up. Most agreed that pilot studies were likely to produce inflated estimates of potential efficacy though only nine interventionists provided potential solutions for decreasing inflated measures of efficacy. Suggested major causes of inflated effects included high levels of oversight in pilot studies (e.g., researcher support), reliance on subjective measures, and utilizing convenience or highly motivated samples. Potential solutions included designing pilots for real-world implementation, only conducting randomized controlled pilot studies, and pre-registering pilot studies.

Conclusions: Pilot studies purposes are multifaceted and deemed essential to obtaining funding for larger-scale trials. Clarifying the form and function of preliminary, early-stage research may enhance the productive utilization of early-stage studies and reduced drops in efficacy when transitioning to larger scale studies.

Keywords: Childhood obesity; Intervention; Pilot; Scalability; Translation.