The primary analysis of a randomized clinical trial should compare patients in their randomly assigned treatment groups (intention to treat analysis). When a substantial number of subjects fail to take a prescribed medication or are switched to a different study medication, it is tempting to consider treatment comparisons using only those subjects with treatment as actually received rather than as prescribed. There are several arguments against this approach: the prognostic balance brought about by randomization is likely to be disturbed; sample size will be reduced; and the validity of the statistical test procedures will be undermined. Further, results of analysis by treatment actually received may suffer from a bias introduced by using compliance, a factor often related to outcome independently of the treatment received, to determine the groups for comparison. The extent and nature of this bias will be related to the definition of compliance in an as treated analysis, a definition which could be unintentionally self-serving.
We have investigated the problem of the definition of actual treatment in the context of a recent clinical trial. We used several definitions to classify patients as having received or not received treatment as prescribed. These definitions, when used in as treated analyses, provided results that were at times inconsistent or counter-intuitive, and which neither helped to confirm nor further explain the intention to treat analysis.