Biometrics

Analysis of covariance in randomized trials: More precision and valid confidence intervals, without model assumptions

Early View

Abstract “Covariate adjustment” in the randomized trial context refers to an estimator of the average treatment effect that adjusts for chance imbalances between study arms in baseline variables (called “covariates”). The baseline variables could include, for example, age, sex, disease severity, and biomarkers. According to two surveys of clinical trial reports, there is confusion about the statistical properties of covariate adjustment. We focus on the analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) estimator, which involves fitting a linear model for the outcome given the treatment arm and baseline variables, and trials that use simple randomization with equal probability of assignment to treatment and control. We prove the following new (to the best of our knowledge) robustness property of ANCOVA to arbitrary model misspecification: Not only is the ANCOVA point estimate consistent (as proved by Yang and Tsiatis, 2001) but so is its standard error. This implies that confidence intervals and hypothesis tests conducted as if the linear model were correct are still asymptotically valid even when the linear model is arbitrarily misspecified, for example, when the baseline variables are nonlinearly related to the outcome or there is treatment effect heterogeneity. We also give a simple, robust formula for the variance reduction (equivalently, sample size reduction) from using ANCOVA. By reanalyzing completed randomized trials for mild cognitive impairment, schizophrenia, and depression, we demonstrate how ANCOVA can achieve variance reductions of 4 to 32%.

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