A mixed methods case study investigating how randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are reported, understood and interpreted in practice

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Background: While randomised controlled trials (RCTs) provide high-quality evidence to guide practice, much routine care is not based upon available RCTs. This disconnect between evidence and practice is not sufficiently well understood. This case study explores this relationship using a novel approach. Better understanding may improve trial design, conduct, reporting and implementation, helping patients benefit from the best available evidence.

Methods: We employed a case-study approach, comprising mixed methods to examine the case of interest: the primary outcome paper of a surgical RCT (the TIME trial). Letters and editorials citing the TIME trial’s primary report underwent qualitative thematic analysis, and the RCT was critically appraised using validated tools. These analyses were compared to provide insight into how the TIME trial findings were interpreted and appraised by the clinical community.

Results: 23 letters and editorials were studied. Most authorship included at least one academic (20/23) and one surgeon (21/23). Authors identified wide-ranging issues including confounding variables or outcome selection. Clear descriptions of bias or generalisability were lacking. Structured appraisal identified risks of bias. Non-RCT evidence was less critically appraised. Authors reached varying conclusions about the trial without consistent justification. Authors discussed aspects of internal and external validity covered by appraisal tools but did not use these methodological terms in their articles.

Conclusions: This novel method for examining interpretation of an RCT in the clinical community showed that published responses identified limited issues with trial design. Responses did not provide coherent rationales for accepting (or not) trial results. Findings may suggest that authors lacked skills in appraisal of RCT design and conduct. Multiple case studies with cross-case analysis of other trials are needed.
Original languageEnglish
Article number112 (2020)
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2020


  • randomised controlled trial
  • surgery
  • methods
  • translational medical research
  • health services research
  • evidence-based medicine


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