The vulnerability of clinical trials to volunteer bias is under-reported. Volunteer bias is systematic error due to differences between those who choose to participate in studies and those who do not.
Methods and Results
This paper extends the applications of the concept of volunteer bias by using data from a trial of probiotic supplementation for childhood atopy in healthy dyads to explore 1) differences between a) trial participants and aggregated data from publicly available databases b) participants and non-participants as the trial progressed 2) impact on trial findings of weighting data according to deprivation (Townsend) fifths in the sample and target populations. 1) a) Recruits (n = 454) were less deprived than the target population, matched for area of residence and delivery dates (n = 6,893) (mean [SD] deprivation scores 0.09[4.21] and 0.79[4.08], t = 3.44, df = 511, p<0.001). b) i)As the trial progressed, representation of the most deprived decreased. These participants and smokers were less likely to be retained at 6 months (n = 430[95%]) (OR 0.29,0.13–0.67 and 0.20,0.09–0.46), and 2 years (n = 380[84%]) (aOR 0.68,0.50–0.93 and 0.55,0.28–1.09), and consent to infant blood sample donation (n = 220[48%]) (aOR 0.72,0.57–0.92 and 0.43,0.22–0.83). ii)Mothers interested in probiotics or research or reporting infants’ adverse events or rashes were more likely to attend research clinics and consent to skin-prick testing. Mothers participating to help children were more likely to consent to infant blood sample donation. 2) In one trial outcome, atopic eczema, the intervention had a positive effect only in the over-represented, least deprived group. Here, data weighting attenuated risk reduction from 6.9%(0.9–13.1%) to 4.6%(−1.4–+10.5%), and OR from 0.40(0.18–0.91) to 0.56(0.26–1.21). Other findings were unchanged.
Potential for volunteer bias intensified during the trial, due to non-participation of the most deprived and smokers. However, these were not the only predictors of non-participation. Data weighting quantified volunteer bias and modified one important trial outcome.
This randomised, double blind, parallel group, placebo controlled trial is registered with the International Standard Randomised Controlled Trials Register, Number (ISRCTN) 26287422. Registered title: Probiotics in the prevention of atopy in infants and children.