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Simple compared to covariate-constrained randomization methods in balancing baseline characteristics: a case study of randomly allocating 72 hemodialysis centers in a cluster trial

Al-Jaishi AA, Dixon SN, McArthur E, Devereaux PJ, Thabane L, Garg AX. Trials. 2021; 22(1):626. Epub 2021 Sep 15. DOI:

Background and Aim — Some parallel-group cluster-randomized trials use covariate-constrained rather than simple randomization. This is done to increase the chance of balancing the groups on cluster- and patient-level baseline characteristics. This study assessed how well two covariate-constrained randomization methods balanced baseline characteristics compared with simple randomization.

Methods — We conducted a mock 3-year cluster-randomized trial, with no active intervention, that started April 1, 2014, and ended March 31, 2017. We included a total of 11,832 patients from 72 hemodialysis centers (clusters) in Ontario, Canada. We randomly allocated the 72 clusters into two groups in a 1:1 ratio on a single date using individual- and cluster-level data available until April 1, 2013. Initially, we generated 1000 allocation schemes using simple randomization. Then, as an alternative, we performed covariate-constrained randomization based on historical data from these centers. In one analysis, we restricted on a set of 11 individual-level prognostic variables; in the other, we restricted on principal components generated using 29 baseline historical variables. We created 300,000 different allocations for the covariate-constrained randomizations, and we restricted our analysis to the 30,000 best allocations based on the smallest sum of the penalized standardized differences. We then randomly sampled 1000 schemes from the 30,000 best allocations. We summarized our results with each randomization approach as the median (25th and 75th percentile) number of balanced baseline characteristics. There were 156 baseline characteristics, and a variable was balanced when the between-group standardized difference was ≤ 10%.

Results — The three randomization techniques had at least 125 of 156 balanced baseline characteristics in 90% of sampled allocations. The median number of balanced baseline characteristics using simple randomization was 147 (142, 150). The corresponding value for covariate-constrained randomization using 11 prognostic characteristics was 149 (146, 151), while for principal components, the value was 150 (147, 151).

Conclusion — In this setting with 72 clusters, constraining the randomization using historical information achieved better balance on baseline characteristics compared with simple randomization; however, the magnitude of benefit was modest.

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