Impact of non-uniform correlation structure on sample size and power in multiple-period cluster randomised trials


Stepped wedge and cluster randomised crossover trials are examples of cluster randomised designs conducted over multiple time periods that are being used with increasing frequency in health research. Recent systematic reviews of both of these designs indicate that the within-cluster correlation is typically taken account of in the analysis of data using a random intercept mixed model, implying a constant correlation between any two individuals in the same cluster no matter how far apart in time they are measured: within-period and between-period intra-cluster correlations are assumed to be identical. Recently proposed extensions allow the within- and between-period intra-cluster correlations to differ, although these methods require that all between-period intra-cluster correlations are identical, which may not be appropriate in all situations. Motivated by a proposed intensive care cluster randomised trial, we propose an alternative correlation structure for repeated cross-sectional multiple-period cluster randomised trials in which the between-period intra-cluster correlation is allowed to decay depending on the distance between measurements. We present results for the variance of treatment effect estimators for varying amounts of decay, investigating the consequences of the variation in decay on sample size planning for stepped wedge, cluster crossover and multiple-period parallel-arm cluster randomised trials. We also investigate the impact of assuming constant between-period intra-cluster correlations instead of decaying between-period intra-cluster correlations. Our results indicate that in certain design configurations, including the one corresponding to the proposed trial, a correlation decay can have an important impact on variances of treatment effect estimators, and hence on sample size and power. An R Shiny app allows readers to interactively explore the impact of correlation decay.

Statistical Methods in Medical Research 2019; 28(3):703-716