To develop a conceptual framework of preferences for interventions in the context of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), as well as to examine the extent to which preferences affect recruitment to RCTs and modify the measured outcome in RCTs through a systematic review of RCTs that incorporated participants' and professionals' preferences. Also to make recommendations on the role of participants' and professionals' preferences in the evaluation of health technologies.
The conceptual review was carried out on published papers in the psychology and economics literature concerning concepts of relevance to patient decision-making and preferences, and their measurement. For the systematic review, studies across all medical specialities meeting strict criteria were selected. Data were then extracted, synthesised and analysed.
Key elements for a conceptual framework were found to be that preferences are evaluations of an intervention in terms of its desirability and these preferences relate to expectancies and perceived value of the process and outcome of interventions. RCTs differed in the information provided to patients, the complexity of techniques used to provide that information and the degree to which preference elicitation may simply produce pre-existing preferences or actively construct them. Most current RCTs used written information alone. Preference can be measured in many different ways and most RCTs did not provide quantitative measures of preferences, and those that did tended to use very simple measures. The second part of the study, the systematic review included 34 RCTs. The findings gave support to the hypothesis that preferences affect trial recruitment. However, there was less evidence that external validity was seriously compromised. There was some evidence that preferences influenced outcome in a proportion of trials. However, evidence for preference effects was weaker in large trials and after accounting for baseline differences. Preference effects were also inconsistent in direction. There was no evidence that preferences influenced attrition. Therefore, the available evidence does not support the operation of a consistent and important 'preference effect'. Interventions cannot be categorised consistently on degree of participation. Examining differential preference effects based on unreliable categories ran the risk of drawing incorrect conclusions, so this was not carried out.
Although patients and physicians often have intervention preferences, our review gives less support to the hypothesis that preferences significantly compromise the internal and external validity of trials. This review adds to the growing evidence that when preferences based on informed expectations or strong ethical objections to an RCT exist, observational methods are a valuable alternative. All RCTs in which participants and/or professionals cannot be masked to treatment arms should attempt to estimate participants' preferences. In this way, the amount of evidence available to answer questions about the effect of treatment preferences within and outwith RCTs could be increased. Furthermore, RCTs should routinely attempt to report the proportion of eligible patients who refused to take part because of their preferences for treatment. The findings also indicate a number of approaches to the design, conduct and analysis of RCTs that take account of participants' and/or professionals' preferences. This is referred to as a methodological tool kit for undertaking RCTs that incorporate some consideration of patients' or professionals' preferences. Future research into the amount and source of information available to patients about interventions in RCTs could be considered, with special emphasis on the relationship between sources inside and outside the RCT context. Qualitative research undertaken as part of ongoing RCTs might be especially useful. The processes by which this information leads to preferences in order to develop or extend the proposed expectancy--value framework could also be examined. Other areas for consideration include: how information about interventions changes participants' preferences; a comparison of the feasibility and effectiveness of different informed consent procedures; how strength of preference varies for different interventions within the same RCT and how these differences can be taken account of in the analysis; the differential effects of patients' and professionals' preferences on evidence arising from RCTs; and whether the standardised measurement of preferences within all RCTs (and analysis of the effect on outcome) would allow the rapid development of a significant evidence base concerning patient preferences, albeit in relation to a single preference design.