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BACKGROUND/AIMS: External pilot trials are recommended for testing the feasibility of main or confirmatory trials. However, there is little evidence that progress in external pilot trials actually predicts randomisation and attrition rates in the main trial. To assess the use of external pilot trials in trial design, we compared randomisation and attrition rates in publicly funded randomised controlled trials with rates in their pilots. METHODS: Randomised controlled trials for which there was an external pilot trial were identified from reports published between 2004 and 2013 in the Health Technology Assessment Journal. Data were extracted from published papers, protocols and reports. Bland-Altman plots and descriptive statistics were used to investigate the agreement of randomisation and attrition rates between the full and external pilot trials. RESULTS: Of 561 reports, 41 were randomised controlled trials with pilot trials and 16 met criteria for a pilot trial with sufficient data. Mean attrition and randomisation rates were 21.1% and 50.4%, respectively, in the pilot trials and 16.8% and 65.2% in the main. There was minimal bias in the pilot trial when predicting the main trial attrition and randomisation rate. However, the variation was large: the mean difference in the attrition rate between the pilot and main trial was -4.4% with limits of agreement of -37.1% to 28.2%. Limits of agreement for randomisation rates were -47.8% to 77.5%. CONCLUSION: Results from external pilot trials to estimate randomisation and attrition rates should be used with caution as comparison of the difference in the rates between pilots and their associated full trial demonstrates high variability. We suggest using internal pilot trials wherever appropriate.

Original publication




Journal article


Clin trials

Publication Date





189 - 196


Pilot trial, attrition, dropout, feasibility, randomisation, recruitment, trial design, Humans, Patient Dropouts, Patient Selection, Pilot Projects, Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic