Statistical Decision Properties of Imprecise Trials Assessing COVID-19 Drugs
As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, researchers are reporting findings of randomized trials comparing standard care with care augmented by experimental drugs. The trials have small sample sizes, so estimates of treatment effects are imprecise. Seeing imprecision, clinicians reading research articles may find it difficult to decide when to treat patients with experimental drugs. Whatever decision criterion one uses, there is always some probability that random variation in trial outcomes will lead to prescribing sub-optimal treatments. A conventional practice when comparing standard care and an innovation is to choose the innovation only if the estimated treatment effect is positive and statistically significant. This practice defers to standard care as the status quo. To evaluate decision criteria, we use the concept of near optimality, which jointly considers the probability and magnitude of decision errors. An appealing decision criterion from this perspective is the empirical success rule, which chooses the treatment with the highest observed average patient outcome in the trial. Considering the design of recent and ongoing COVID-19 trials, we show that the empirical success rule yields treatment results that are much closer to optimal than those generated by prevailing decision criteria based on hypothesis tests.
We have benefitted from the comments of Michael Gmeiner, Valentyn Litvin, Francesca Molinari, and John Mullahy. Tetenov has received funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation through grant number 100018-192580. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.