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Open Access Research

Participant demographics reported in "Table 1" of randomised controlled trials: a case of "inverse evidence"?

John Furler1*, Parker Magin2, Marie Pirotta3 and Mieke van Driel45

Author Affiliations

1 Department of General Practice, University of Melbourne, 200 Berkeley St, Carlton, VIC 3053, Australia

2 Discipline of General Practice, Newbolds Bldg, University of Newcastle, University Dr, Callaghan 2308, Australia

3 Department of General Practice, University of Melbourne, 200 Berkeley St, Carlton, VIC 3053, Australia

4 Discipline of General Practice, University of Queensland, Brisbane 4029, QLD, Australia

5 Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

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International Journal for Equity in Health 2012, 11:14  doi:10.1186/1475-9276-11-14

Published: 19 March 2012

Abstract

Introduction

Data supporting external validity of trial results allows clinicians to assess the applicability of a study's findings to their practice population. Socio-economic status (SES) of trial participants may be critical to external validity given the relationship between social and economic circumstances and health. We explored how this is documented in reports of RCTs in four major general medical journals.

Methods

The contents lists of four leading general medical journals were hand searched to identify 25 consecutive papers reporting RCT results in each journal (n = 100). Data on demographic characteristics were extracted from each paper's Table 1 only (or equivalent).

Results

Authors infrequently reported key demographic characteristics relating to SES of RCT participants. Age and gender of participants were commonly reported. Less than 10% reported occupational group, employment status, income or area based measures of disadvantage.

Conclusions

Without adequate reporting of key indicators of SES in trial participants it is unclear if lower SES groups are under-represented. If such groups are systematically under-recruited into trials, this may limit the external validity and applicability of study findings to these groups. This is in spite of the higher health-care need in more disadvantaged populations. Under-representation of low SES groups could underestimate the reported effect of an intervention for those with a higher baseline risk. The marginal benefit identified in a trial with poor or no representation of lower SES participants could significantly underestimate the potential benefit to a low SES community. More transparency in this reporting and greater attention to the impact of SES on intervention outcomes in clinical trials is needed. This could be considered in the next revision of the CONSORT statement.