Design of the Women's Health Initiative clinical trial and observational study. The Women's Health Initiative Study Group

Control Clin Trials. 1998 Feb;19(1):61-109. doi: 10.1016/s0197-2456(97)00078-0.


The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) is a large and complex clinical investigation of strategies for the prevention and control of some of the most common causes of morbidity and mortality among postmenopausal women, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporotic fractures. The WHI was initiated in 1992, with a planned completion date of 2007. Postmenopausal women ranging in age from 50 to 79 are enrolled at one of 40 WHI clinical centers nationwide into either a clinical trial (CT) that will include about 64,500 women or an observational study (OS) that will include about 100,000 women. The CT is designed to allow randomized controlled evaluation of three distinct interventions: a low-fat eating pattern, hypothesized to prevent breast cancer and colorectal cancer and, secondarily, coronary heart disease; hormone replacement therapy, hypothesized to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases and, secondarily, to reduce the risk of hip and other fractures, with increased breast cancer risk as a possible adverse outcome; and calcium and vitamin D supplementation, hypothesized to prevent hip fractures and, secondarily, other fractures and colorectal cancer. Overall benefit-versus-risk assessment is a central focus in each of the three CT components. Women are screened for participation in one or both of the components--dietary modification (DM) or hormone replacement therapy (HRT)--of the CT, which will randomize 48,000 and 27,500 women, respectively. Women who prove to be ineligible for, or who are unwilling to enroll in, these CT components are invited to enroll in the OS. At their 1-year anniversary of randomization, CT women are invited to be further randomized into the calcium and vitamin D (CaD) trial component, which is projected to include 45,000 women. The average follow-up for women in either CT or OS is approximately 9 years. Concerted efforts are made to enroll women of racial and ethnic minority groups, with a target of 20% of overall enrollment in both the CT and OS. This article gives a brief description of the rationale for the interventions being studied in each of the CT components and for the inclusion of the OS component. Some detail is provided on specific study design choices, including eligibility criteria, recruitment strategy, and sample size, with attention to the partial factorial design of the CT. Some aspects of the CT monitoring approach are also outlined. The scientific and logistic complexity of the WHI implies particular leadership and management challenges. The WHI organization and committee structure employed to respond to these challenges is also briefly described.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Breast Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Calcium / therapeutic use
  • Colonic Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Continental Population Groups
  • Coronary Disease / prevention & control
  • Diet, Fat-Restricted
  • Estrogen Replacement Therapy / adverse effects
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Fractures, Bone / prevention & control
  • Hip Fractures / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Minority Groups
  • Osteoporosis, Postmenopausal / prevention & control
  • Postmenopause
  • Rectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Research Design*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Vitamin D / therapeutic use
  • Women's Health*


  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium