• Adaptive designs;
  • Epidemiology;
  • Power;
  • Sample size re-estimation


Study planning often involves selecting an appropriate sample size. Power calculations require specifying an effect size and estimating “nuisance” parameters, e.g. the overall incidence of the outcome. For observational studies, an additional source of randomness must be estimated: the rate of the exposure. A poor estimate of any of these parameters will produce an erroneous sample size. Internal pilot (IP) designs reduce the risk of this error - leading to better resource utilization - by using revised estimates of the nuisance parameters at an interim stage to adjust the final sample size. In the clinical trials setting, where allocation to treatment groups is pre-determined, IP designs have been shown to achieve the targeted power without introducing substantial inflation of the type I error rate. It has not been demonstrated whether the same general conclusions hold in observational studies, where exposure-group membership cannot be controlled by the investigator. We extend the IP to observational settings. We demonstrate through simulations that implementing an IP, in which prevalence of the exposure can be re-estimated at an interim stage, helps ensure optimal power for observational research with little inflation of the type I error associated with the final data analysis.