Are outcomes reported in surgical randomized trials patient-important? A systematic review and meta-analysis

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The dangers of using surrogate outcomes are well documented. They may have little or no association with their patient-important correlates, leading to the approval and use of interventions that lack efficacy. We sought to assess whether primary outcomes in surgical randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are more likely to be patient-important outcomes than surrogate or laboratory-based outcomes.


We reviewed RCTs assessing an operative intervention published in 2008 and 2009 and indexed in MEDLINE, EMBASE or the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials. After a pilot of the selection criteria, 1 reviewer selected trials and another reviewer checked the selection. We extracted information on outcome characteristics (patient-important, surrogate, or laboratory-based outcome) and whether they were primary or secondary outcomes. We calculated odds ratios (OR) and pooled in random-effects meta-analysis to obtain an overall estimate of the association between patient importance and primary outcome specification.


In 350 included RCTs, a total of 8258 outcomes were reported (median 18 per trial. The mean proportion (per trial) of patient-important outcomes was 60%, and 66% of trials specified a patient-important primary outcome. The most commonly reported patient-important primary outcomes were morbid events (41%), intervention outcomes (11%), function (11%) and pain (9%). Surrogate and laboratory-based primary outcomes were reported in 33% and 8% of trials, respectively. Patient-important outcomes were not associated with primary outcome status (OR 0.82, 95% confidence interval 0.63–1.1, I2 = 21%).


A substantial proportion of surgical RCTs specify primary outcomes that are not patient-important. Authors, journals and trial funders should insist that patient-important outcomes are the focus of study.

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