Friday, April 19, 2013

David versus Goliath on the Battlefield of Non-inferiority: Strangeness is in the Eye of the Beholder

In this week's JAMA is my letter to the editor about the CONSORT statement revision for the reporting of non-inferiority trials, and the authors' responses.  I'll leave it to interested readers to view for themselves the revised CONSORT statement, and the letter and response.

In sum, my main argument is that Figure 1 in the article is asymmetric, such that inferiority is stochastically less likely than superiority and an advantage is therefore conferred to the "new" [preferred; proprietary; profitable; promulgated] treatment in a non-inferiority trial.  Thus the standards for interpretation of non-inferiority trials are inherently biased.  There is no way around this, save for revising the standards.

The authors of CONSORT say that my proposed solution is "strange" because it would require revision of the standards of interpretation for superiority trials as well.  For me it is "strange" that we would endorse asymmetric and biased standards of interpretation in any trial.  The compromised solution, as I suggested in my letter, is that we force different standards for superiority only in the context of a non-inferiority trial.  Thus, superiority trial interpretation standards remain untouched.  It is only if you start with a non-inferiority trial that you have a higher hurdle to claiming superiority that is contingent on evidence of non-inferiority in the trial that you designed.  This would disincentivise the conduct of non-inferiority trials for a treatment that you hope/think/want to be superior.  In the current interpretation scheme, it's a no-brainer - conduct a non-inferiority trial and pass the low hurdle for non-inferiority, and then if you happen to be superior too, BONUS!

In my proposed scheme, there is no bonus superiority that comes with a lower hurdle than inferiority.  As I said in the last sentence, "investigators seeking to demonstrate superiority should design a superiority trial."  Then, there is no minimal clinically important difference (MCID) hurdle that must be cleared, and a statistical difference favoring new therapy by any margin lets you declare superiority.  But if you fail to clear that low(er) hurdle, you can't go back and declare non-inferiority.  

Which leads me to something that the word limit of the letter did not allow me to express:  we don't let unsuccessful superiority trials test for non-inferiority contingently, so why do we let successful non-inferiority trials test for superiority contingently?

Symmetry is beautiful;  Strangeness is in the eye of the beholder.

(See also:  Dabigatran and Gefitinib especially the figures, analogs of Figure 1 of Piaggio et al, on this blog.)

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