Empirical Evidence of Attrition Bias in Clinical Trials
The commentary, “Empirical evidence of attrition bias in clinical trials,” by Juni et al  is a nice review of what has transpired since 1970 when attrition bias received attention in a critical appraisal of a non-valid trial of extracranial bypass surgery for transient ischemic attack.  At about the same time Bradford Hill coined the phrase “intention-to-treat.” He wrote that excluding patient data after “admission to the treated or control group” may affect the validity of clinical trials and that “unless the losses are very few and therefore unimportant, we may inevitably have to keep such patients in the comparison and thus measure the ‘intention-to-treat’ in a given way, rather than the actual treatment.” The next major development was meta-epidemiological research which assessed trials for associations between methodological quality and effect size and found conflicting results in terms of the effect of attrition bias on effect size. However, as the commentary points out, the studies assessing attrition bias were flawed. [4,5,6].
Finally a breakthrough in understanding the distorting effect of loss of subjects following randomization was seen by two authors evaluating attrition bias in oncology trials. The investigators compared the results from their analyses which utilized individual patient data, which invariably followed the intention-to-treat principle with those done by the original investigators, which often excluded some or many patients. The results showed that pooled analyses of trials with patient exclusions reported more beneficial effects of the experimental treatment than analyses based on all or most patients who had been randomized. Tierney and Stewart showed that, in most meta-analyses they reviewed based on only “included” patients, the results favored the research treatment (P = 0.03). The commentary gives deserved credit to Tierney and Stewart for their tremendous contribution to critical appraisal and is a very nice, short read.
1. Jüni P, Egger M. Commentary: Empirical evidence of attrition bias in clinical trials. Int J Epidemiol. 2005 Feb;34(1):87-8. Epub 2005 Jan 13. Erratum in: Int J Epidemiol. 2006 Dec;35(6):1595. PubMed PMID: 15649954.
2. Fields WS, Maslenikov V, Meyer JS, Hass WK, Remington RD, Macdonald M. Joint study of extracranial arterial occlusion. V. Progress report of prognosis following surgery or nonsurgical treatment for transient cerebral ischemic attacks. PubMed PMID: 5467158.
3. Bradford Hill A. Principles of Medical Statistics, 9th edn. London: The Lancet Limited, 1971.
4. Schulz KF, Chalmers I, Hayes RJ, Altman D. Empirical evidence of bias. Dimensions of methodological quality associated with estimates of treatment effects in controlled trials. JAMA 1995;273:408–12. PMID: 7823387
5. Kjaergard LL, Villumsen J, Gluud C. Reported methodological quality and discrepancies between large and small randomized trials in metaanalyses. Ann Intern Med 2001;135:982–89. PMID 11730399
6. Balk EM, Bonis PA, Moskowitz H, Schmid CH, Ioannidis JP, Wang C, Lau J. Correlation of quality measures with estimates of treatment effect in meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. JAMA. 2002 Jun 12;287(22):2973-82. PubMed PMID: 12052127.
7. Tierney JF, Stewart LA. Investigating patient exclusion bias in meta-analysis. Int J Epidemiol. 2005 Feb;34(1):79-87. Epub 2004 Nov 23. PubMed PMID: 15561753.