By Urmimala Sarkar, MD, MPH
Often, at scientific conferences, the most important learning happens in the question and answer period. I spoke at the American Diabetes Association conference earlier this year, presenting results of an observational study we did on medication adherence and diabetes. We found that if people starting using the online patient portal (sometimes called the personal health record), to order their medication refills, they were more likely to take their medication regularly. Dr. Katherine Newton of Group Health Research Institute spoke before me, describing a randomized study showing that a clinical pharmacist-led blood pressure management program did not lower blood pressure any more than usual care by an outpatient provider.
This worship of randomized trials at the expense of other forms of study is understandable. If we randomly assign people to one treatment or another, we can ensure that the differences we see between the two groups are really because of the treatment and not some other factor. After all, researchers, myself included, spend a tremendous amount of time obsessing over our methods. We go to extreme lengths to make sure that we correctly interpret the data before us. Our holy grail is “causal inference” in which we can be sure that whatever risk factor or treatment we study truly causes the health outcome we are interested in. Randomization is the best way to ensure that you’re not unwittingly attributing your effect to the wrong cause.
So why did I think this comment was off-base? First, you cannot always randomize people to one treatment or another. In the case of my study, the online patient portal was available to everyone, as a part of the health system. When healthcare systems change or offer a new service, it is important to quantify the benefit, and government and accreditation mandates often make randomization impossible. So, we use our methodological skills to try to approximate cause and effect, by choosing the population under study carefully and adjusting for all the factors that we can think of and measure that might affect the outcome. Is it perfect? Nope. However, it’s better than not understanding the health effects of health system delivery changes.
A second reason to think beyond trials is because they are designed to answer a single question in a narrow group of people. Enrolling in a trial involves meeting strict criteria about what other medical conditions, medications, treatment, and history you have. In the real world, patients are people, not single-disease entities. As a primary care physician caring for medically complex, low income, ethnically diverse patients, I often struggle with how to apply results from trials to my own practice. It bears repeating that studying real-world populations is critical to improving health in real-world populations.
If that weren’t enough, trials are expensive and time-consuming. Trial researchers need to enroll a lot of people to detect significant differences in outcomes. However, when policymakers and public health leaders are making decisions for an entire population, small differences matter. Our study showed a 6% difference in the proportion of patients who took their cholesterol medication regularly. That’s not a huge number, but over an entire group of diabetes patients, lowering cholesterol modestly is important. It would be a tall order to fund a trial large enough to detect such a difference.
Finally, many approaches that work in randomized trials don’t end up helping in real life. A study earlier this year found no benefit to implementing surgical checklists in Canada, even though the same checklist had powerful results in other settings. No randomized trial is going to be able to explain that contradiction! We need more methods, collectively known as implementation science, in order to understand not only what works, but how it can be applied, implemented, and spread, so that new treatments and approaches translate to health benefits for all. In our study, perhaps there was something unique about portal users that used the online refill function for their medications – understanding that, rather than designing new randomized trials of new interventions, may be well worth our time.
Let’s end the tyranny of the randomized trial and advocate for good data and rigorous methods in every aspect of health care delivery. My patients, and all patients, deserve better.