Research is needed to help identify interventions that will improve the capacity or functioning of health systems and thereby contribute to achieving global health goals. Well conducted, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), insofar as they reduce bias and confounding, provide the strongest evidence for identifying which interventions delivered directly to individuals are safe and effective. When ethically feasible, they can also help reduce bias and confounding when assessing interventions targeting entire health systems. However, additional challenges emerge when research focuses on interventions that target the multiple units of organization found within health systems. Hence, one cannot complacently assume that randomization can reduce or eliminate bias and confounding to the same degree in every instance. While others have articulated arguments in favour of alternative designs, this paper is intended to help people understand why the potential value afforded by RCTs may be threatened. Specifically, it suggests six points to be borne in mind when exploring the challenges entailed in designing or evaluating RCTs on health system interventions: (i) the number of units available for randomization; (ii) the complexity of the organizational unit under study; (iii) the complexity of the intervention; (iv) the complexity of the cause-effect pathway, (v) contamination; and (vi) outcome heterogeneity. The authors suggest that the latter may be informative and that the reasons behind it should be explored and not ignored. Based on improved understanding of the value and possible limitations of RCTs on health system interventions, the authors show why we need broader platforms of research to complement RCTs.
English, M., Schellenberg, J., Todd, J.