Routinely collected health data (RCD) are increasingly used for randomized controlled trials (RCTs). This can provide three major benefits: increasing value through better feasibility (reducing costs, time, and resources), expanding the research agenda (performing trials for research questions otherwise not amenable to trials), and offering novel design and data collection options (e.g., point-of-care trials and other designs directly embedded in routine care). However, numerous hurdles and barriers must be considered pertaining to regulatory, ethical, and data aspects, as well as the costs of setting up the RCD infrastructure. Methodological considerations may be different from those in traditional RCTs: RCD are often collected by individuals not involved in the study and who are therefore blinded to the allocation of trial participants. Another consideration is that RCD trials may lead to greater misclassification biases or dilution effects, although these may be offset by randomization and larger sample sizes. Finally, valuable insights into external validity may be provided when using RCD because it allows pragmatic trials to be performed.
We provide an overview of the promises, challenges, and potential barriers, methodological implications, and research needs regarding RCD for RCTs.
RCD have substantial potential for improving the conduct and reducing the costs of RCTs, but a multidisciplinary approach is essential to address emerging practical barriers and methodological implications.
Future research should be directed toward such issues and specifically focus on data quality validation, alternative research designs and how they affect outcome assessment, and aspects of reporting and transparency.