A key step in the design of a randomised controlled trial is the estimation of the number of participants needed. The most common approach is to specify a target difference in the primary outcome between the randomised groups and then estimate the corresponding sample size. The sample size is chosen to provide reassurance that the trial will have high statistical power to detect the target difference at the planned statistical significance level. Alternative approaches are also available, though most still require specification of a target difference.
The sample size has many implications for the conduct of the study, as well as incurring scientific and ethical aspects. Despite the critical role of the target difference for the primary outcome in the design of a randomised controlled trial (RCT), the manner in which it is determined has received little attention. This article reports the development of the DELTA2 guidance on the specification and reporting of the target difference for the primary outcome in a sample size calculation for a RCT.
The DELTA2 (Difference ELicitation in TriAls) project has five components comprising systematic literature reviews of recent methodological developments (stage 1) and existing funder guidance (stage 2), a Delphi study (stage 3), a 2-day consensus meeting bringing together researchers, funders and patient representatives (stage 4), and the preparation and dissemination of a guidance document (stage 5).
The project started in April 2016. The literature search identified 28 articles of methodological developments relevant to a method for specifying a target difference. A Delphi study involving 69 participants, along with a 2-day consensus meeting were conducted. In addition, further engagement sessions were held at two international conferences. The main guidance text was finalised on April 18, 2018, after revision informed by feedback gathered from stages 2 and 3 and from funder representatives.
The DELTA2 Delphi study identified a number of areas (such as practical recommendations and examples, greater coverage of different trial designs and statistical approaches) of particular interest amongst stakeholders which new guidance was desired to meet. New relevant references were identified by the review. Such findings influenced the scope, drafting and revision of the guidance. While not all suggestions could be accommodated, it is hoped that the process has led to a more useful and practical document.
Clinically important difference