Ethical and epistemic issues in the design and conduct of pragmatic stepped-wedge cluster randomized clinical trials

Carole A. Federico, Patrick J. Heagerty, John Lantos, Pearl O'Rourke, Vasiliki Rahimzadeh, Jeremy Sugarman, Kevin Weinfurt, David Wendler, Benjamin S. Wilfond, David Magnus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Stepped-wedge cluster randomized trial (SW-CRT) designs are increasingly employed in pragmatic research; they differ from traditional parallel cluster randomized trials in which an intervention is delivered to a subset of clusters, but not to all. In a SW-CRT, all clusters receive the intervention under investigation by the end of the study. This approach is thought to avoid ethical concerns about the denial of a desired intervention to participants in control groups. Such concerns have been cited in the literature as a primary motivation for choosing SW-CRT design, however SW-CRTs raise additional ethical concerns related to the delayed implementation of an intervention and consent. Yet, PCT investigators may choose SW-CRT designs simply because they are concerned that other study designs are infeasible. In this paper, we examine justifications for the use of SW-CRT study design, over other designs, by drawing on the experience of the National Institutes of Health's Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory (NIH Collaboratory) with five pragmatic SW-CRTs. We found that decisions to use SW-CRT design were justified by practical and epistemic reasons rather than ethical ones. These include concerns about feasibility, the heterogeneity of cluster characteristics, and the desire for simultaneous clinical evaluation and implementation. In this paper we compare the potential benefits of SW-CRTs against the ethical and epistemic challenges brought forth by the design and suggest that the choice of SW-CRT design must balance epistemic, feasibility and ethical justifications. Moreover, given their complexity, such studies need rigorous and informed ethical oversight.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106703
JournalContemporary Clinical Trials
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Clinical trial design
  • Ethics
  • Pragmatic clinical trials
  • Stepped-wedge cluster randomized trials

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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