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01.12.2017 | Review | Ausgabe 1/2017 Open Access

Emerging Themes in Epidemiology 1/2017

Spatial analysis of cluster randomised trials: a systematic review of analysis methods

Emerging Themes in Epidemiology > Ausgabe 1/2017
Christopher Jarvis, Gian Luca Di Tanna, Daniel Lewis, Neal Alexander, W. John Edmunds
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Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​s12982-017-0066-2) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.



Cluster randomised trials (CRTs) often use geographical areas as the unit of randomisation, however explicit consideration of the location and spatial distribution of observations is rare. In many trials, the location of participants will have little importance, however in some, especially against infectious diseases, spillover effects due to participants being located close together may affect trial results. This review aims to identify spatial analysis methods used in CRTs and improve understanding of the impact of spatial effects on trial results.


A systematic review of CRTs containing spatial methods, defined as a method that accounts for the structure, location, or relative distances between observations. We searched three sources: Ovid/Medline, Pubmed, and Web of Science databases. Spatial methods were categorised and details of the impact of spatial effects on trial results recorded.


We identified ten papers which met the inclusion criteria, comprising thirteen trials. We found that existing approaches fell into two categories; spatial variables and spatial modelling. The spatial variable approach was most common and involved standard statistical analysis of distance measurements. Spatial modelling is a more sophisticated approach which incorporates the spatial structure of the data within a random effects model. Studies tended to demonstrate the importance of accounting for location and distribution of observations in estimating unbiased effects.


There have been a few attempts to control and estimate spatial effects within the context of human CRTs, but our overall understanding is limited. Although spatial effects may bias trial results, their consideration was usually a supplementary, rather than primary analysis. Further work is required to evaluate and develop the spatial methodologies relevant to a range of CRTs.
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