Tolerating bad health research: the continuing scandal
Webinar, Ireland

Speaker: Shaun Treweek and Stefania Pirosca

This is part of the Trial Methodology Research Network webinar series:


At the 2015 REWARD/EQUATOR conference on research waste, the late Doug Altman revealed that his only regret about his 1994 BMJ paper ‘The scandal of poor medical research’ was that he used the word ‘poor’ rather than ‘bad’. But how much research is bad? And what would improve things? We used Cochrane systematic reviews to get an idea of how many trials are bad: we used the Cochrane assessment of trial risk of bias as high as being a proxy for bad. We were also interested in how many participants were in bad trials and how much these trials cost. We identified 96 reviews authored by 546 reviewers from 49 clinical Cochrane Review Groups that included 1659 trials done in 84 countries. In summary: most trials are bad. Only 133 (8%) of the 1640 presenting risk of bias information were low risk of bias. Most participants were in a bad trial and the money spent on them could, we estimate, fund the UK’s biggest public trial funding programme for at least 10 years. We have five recommendations: trials should be neither funded (1) nor given ethical approval (2) unless they have a statistician and methodologist; trialists should use a risk of bias tool at design (3); more statisticians and methodologists should be trained and supported (4); there should be more funding into applied methodology research and infrastructure (5). In short, most randomised trials are bad and most trial participants will be in one. The research community has tolerated this for decades. This has to stop: we need to put rigour and methodology where it belongs — at the centre of our science.

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