Considerations Before Selecting a Stepped-Wedge Cluster Randomized Trial Design for a Practice Improvement Study

Ann M. Nguyen, Charles M. Cleland, L. Miriam Dickinson, Michael P. Barry, Samuel Cykert, F. Daniel Duffy, Anton J. Kuzel, Stephan R. Lindner, Michael L. Parchman, Donna R. Shelley, Theresa L. Walunas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


PURPOSE Despite the growing popularity of stepped-wedge cluster randomized trials (SWCRTs) for practice-based research, the design’s advantages and challenges are not well documented. The objective of this study was to identify the advantages and challenges of the SW-CRT design for large-scale intervention implementations in primary care settings. METHODS The EvidenceNOW: Advancing Heart Health initiative, funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, included a large collection of SW-CRTs. We conducted qualitative interviews with 17 key informants from EvidenceNOW grantees to identify the advantages and challenges of using SW-CRT design. RESULTS All interviewees reported that SW-CRT can be an effective study design for largescale intervention implementations. Advantages included (1) incentivized recruitment, (2) staggered resource allocation, and (3) statistical power. Challenges included (1) time-sensitive recruitment, (2) retention, (3) randomization requirements and practice preferences, (4) achieving treatment schedule fidelity, (5) intensive data collection, (6) the Hawthorne effect, and (7) temporal trends. CONCLUSIONS The challenges experienced by EvidenceNOW grantees suggest that certain favorable real-world conditions constitute a context that increases the odds of a successful SW-CRT. An existing infrastructure can support the recruitment of many practices. Strong retention plans are needed to continue to engage sites waiting to start the intervention. Finally, study outcomes should be ones already captured in routine practice; otherwise, funders and investigators should assess the feasibility and cost of data collection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)255-261
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of family medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2022


  • implementation
  • practice improvement
  • qualitative
  • stepped wedge cluster randomized trial
  • study design

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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