The factors which influence participant retention in paediatric randomised controlled trials are under-researched. Retention may be more challenging due to child developmental stages, involving additional participants, and proxy-reporting of outcomes. This systematic review and meta-analysis explores the factors which may influence retention in paediatric trials.
Using the MEDLINE database, paediatric randomised controlled trials published between 2015 and 2019 were identified from six general and specialist medical journals. The review outcome was participant retention for each reviewed trial’s primary outcome. Context and design factors were extracted. Retention was examined for each context and design factor in turn, with evidence for an association being determined by a univariate random-effects meta-regression analysis.
Ninety-four trials were included, and median total retention was 0.92 (inter-quartile range 0.83 to 0.98). Higher estimates of retention were seen for trials with five or more follow-up assessments before the primary outcome, and those less than six-months between randomisation and primary outcome. Trials involving children aged 11 and over had the higher estimated retention compared with those involving younger children. Those trials which did not involve other participants also had higher retention, than those where they were involved. There was also evidence that a trial which used an active or placebo control treatment had higher estimated retention, than treatment-as-usual. Retention increased if at least one engagement method was used. Unlike reviews of trials including all ages of participants, we did not find any association between retention and, number of treatment groups, size of trial, or type of treatment.
Published paediatric RCTs rarely report the use of specific modifiable factors that improve retention. Including multiple, regular follow-ups with participants before the primary outcome may reduce attrition. Retention may be highest when the primary outcome is collected up to six-months after a participant is recruited. Our findings suggest that primary research into improving retention when trials involve multiple participants such as young people, and their caregivers or teachers would be worthwhile. Those designing paediatric trials also need to consider the use of appropriate engagement methods such as incentives or reminders.
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