Of Mice and Cheese: Research with Non-equivalent Groups

Last week’s blog focused on the strongest types of evidence that you might find when trying to solve a clinical problem. These are: #1 Systematic reviews, Meta-analyses, or Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines based on systematic review of RCTs; & #2 Randomized controlled trials. (For levels of evidence from strongest to weakest, see blog “I like my coffee (and my evidence) strong!”)

So after the two strongest levels of evidence what is the next strongest? #3 level is controlled trials without randomization. (Sometimes called quasi-experimental studies.)

Here’s an example of a controlled trial without randomization: I take two groups of mice and test two types of cheese to find out which one mice like best. I do NOT randomly assign the mice to groups. The experimental group #1 loved Swiss cheese, & the control group #2 refused to eat the cheddar. I assume confidently that mice LOVE Swiss cheese & do NOT like cheddar. What’s the problem with my conclusion? If you want to know, then read on!swiss cheese

In my mouse Controlled Trial Without Randomization, the groups were formed by convenience and Not randomly assigned. Thus, any difference in outcomes between groups might be related to some pre-existing difference between groups. My outcome of mice loving Swiss & hating Cheddar might have nothing to do with the experimental treatment.   In fact, I did not know that all my mice in the Swiss cheese group #1 hadn’t eaten in 2 days, and my mice in the cheddar group #2 had just had a full lunch. Ooops.

On the other hand if I had randomly assigned all the mice to two groups, then I could be relatively confident that all little differences between group members were evenly distributed to both groups, so that the groups were equivalent. My two mouse-groups would have probably ended up with a pretty even distribution of both hungry and not-so-hungry mice.   Then if my Swiss cheese group devoured the Swiss and my cheddar group rejected the cheddar, I could be more certain that mice love Swiss and dislike cheddar.

Happy evidence hunting!

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