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A method to reduce imbalance for site-level randomized stepped wedge implementation trial designs.

Lew RA, Miller CJ, Kim B, Wu H, Stolzmann K, Bauer MS. A method to reduce imbalance for site-level randomized stepped wedge implementation trial designs. Implementation science : IS. 2019 May 3; 14(1):46.

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BACKGROUND: Controlled implementation trials often randomize the intervention at the site level, enrolling relatively few sites (e.g., 6-20) compared to trials that randomize by subject. Trials with few sites carry a substantial risk of an imbalance between intervened (cases) and non-intervened (control) sites in important site characteristics, thereby threatening the internal validity of the primary comparison. A stepped wedge design (SWD) staggers the intervention at sites over a sequence of times or time waves until all sites eventually receive the intervention. We propose a new randomization method, sequential balance, to control time trend in site allocation by minimizing sequential imbalance across multiple characteristics. We illustrate the new method by applying it to a SWD implementation trial. METHODS: The trial investigated the impact of blended internal-external facilitation on the establishment of evidence-based teams in general mental health clinics in nine US Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers. Prior to randomization to start time, an expert panel of implementation researchers and health system program leaders identified by consensus a series of eight facility-level characteristics judged relevant to the success of implementation. We characterized each of the nine sites according to these consensus features. Using a weighted sum of these characteristics, we calculated imbalance scores for each of 1680 possible site assignments to identify the most sequentially balanced assignment schemes. RESULTS: From 1680 possible site assignments, we identified 34 assignments with minimal imbalance scores, and then randomly selected one assignment by which to randomize start time. Initially, the mean imbalance score was 3.10, but restricted to the 34 assignments, it declined to 0.99. CONCLUSIONS: Sequential balancing of site characteristics across groups of sites in the time waves of a SWD strengthens the internal validity of study conclusions by minimizing potential confounding. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Registered at as clinical trials # NCT02543840 ; entered 9/4/2015.

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