Sufficient trial size to inform clinical practice

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
(Accessed 10 September 2016)

Sufficient trial size to inform clinical practice
Charles F. Manskia,1 and Aleksey Tetenovb,c
Author Affiliations
Contributed by Charles F. Manski, July 23, 2016 (sent for review May 20, 2016; reviewed by Keisuke Hirano and David Meltzer)
A core objective of trials comparing alternative medical treatments is to inform treatment choice in clinical practice, and yet conventional practice in designing trials has been to choose a sample size that yields specified statistical power. Power, a concept in the theory of hypothesis testing, is at most loosely connected to effective treatment choice. This paper develops an alternative principle for trial design that aims to directly benefit medical decision making. We propose choosing a sample size that enables implementation of near-optimal treatment rules. Near optimality means that treatment choices are suitably close to the best that could be achieved if clinicians were to know with certainty mean treatment response in their patient populations.

Medical research has evolved conventions for choosing sample size in randomized clinical trials that rest on the theory of hypothesis testing. Bayesian statisticians have argued that trials should be designed to maximize subjective expected utility in settings of clinical interest. This perspective is compelling given a credible prior distribution on treatment response, but there is rarely consensus on what the subjective prior beliefs should be. We use Wald’s frequentist statistical decision theory to study design of trials under ambiguity. We show that ε-optimal rules exist when trials have large enough sample size. An ε-optimal rule has expected welfare within ε of the welfare of the best treatment in every state of nature. Equivalently, it has maximum regret no larger than ε. We consider trials that draw predetermined numbers of subjects at random within groups stratified by covariates and treatments. We report exact results for the special case of two treatments and binary outcomes. We give simple sufficient conditions on sample sizes that ensure existence of ε-optimal treatment rules when there are multiple treatments and outcomes are bounded. These conditions are obtained by application of Hoeffding large deviations inequalities to evaluate the performance of empirical success rules.