Background: If the randomisation process within a trial is subverted, this can lead to selection bias that may invalidate the trial’s result. To avoid this problem, it is recommended that some form of concealment should be put into place. Despite ongoing anecdotal concerns about their susceptibility to subversion, a surprising number of trials (over 10%) still use sealed opaque envelopes as the randomisation method of choice. This is likely due in part to the paucity of empirical data quantifying the potential effects of subversion. In this study we report a historical before and after study that compares the use of the sealed envelope method with a more secure centralised telephone allocation approach in order to provide such empirical evidence of the effects of subversion. Methods: An opportunistic before and after study set within a multi-centre surgical trial which involved 654 patients from 28 clinicians from 23 centres in the UK and Ireland. Two methods of randomly allocating subjects to alternative treatments were adopted: a) a sealed envelope system administered locally, and b) a centralised telephone system administered by the trial co-ordination centre. Key prognostic variables were compared between randomisation methods: a) age at trial entry, a key prognostic factor in the study, and b) the order in which ‘randomisation envelopes’ were matched to subjects. Results: The median age of patients allocated to the experimental group with the sealed envelope system, was significantly lower both overall (59 vs 63 years, p<0.01) and in particular for three clinicians (57 v 72, p<0.01; 33 vs 69, p<0.001; 47 vs 72, p=0.03). No differences in median age were found between the allocation groups for the centralised system. Conclusion: Due to inadequate allocation concealment with the sealed envelope system, the randomisation process was corrupted for patients recruited from three clinicians. Centralised randomisation ensures that treatment allocation is not only secure but seen to be secure. Where this proves to be impossible, allocation should at least be performed by an independent third party. Unless it is an absolute requirement, the use of sealed envelopes should be discontinued forthwith.
The Health Services Research Unit is core funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Health and Social Care Directorates. The views expressed are those of the authors alone.
- sealed envelopes
- allocation concealment
- subversion of randomisation