Contamination in complex healthcare trials: the falls in care homes (FinCH) study experience

K Robinson, F Allen, J Darby, C Fox, A L Gordon, J C Horne, P Leighton, Erika Sims, P A Logan

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BACKGROUND: Trials are at risk of contamination bias which can occur when participants in the control group are inadvertently exposed to the intervention. This is a particular risk in rehabilitation studies where it is easy for trial interventions to be either intentionally or inadvertently adopted in control settings. The Falls in Care Homes (FinCH) trial is used in this paper as an example of a large randomised controlled trial of a complex intervention to explore the potential risks of contamination bias. We outline the FinCH trial design, present the potential risks from contamination bias, and the strategies used in the design of the trial to minimise or mitigate against this. The FinCH trial was a multi-centre randomised controlled trial, with embedded process evaluation, which evaluated whether systematic training in the use of the Guide to Action Tool for Care Homes reduced falls in care home residents. Data were collected from a number of sources to explore contamination in the FinCH trial. Where specific procedures were adopted to reduce risk of, or mitigate against, contamination, this was recorded. Data were collected from study e-mails, meetings with clinicians, research assistant and clinician network communications, and an embedded process evaluation in six intervention care homes. During the FinCH trial, there were six new falls prevention initiatives implemented outside the study which could have contaminated our intervention and findings. Methods used to minimise contamination were: cluster randomisation at the level of care home; engagement with the clinical community to highlight the risks of early adoption; establishing local collaborators in each site familiar with the local context; signing agreements with NHS falls specialists that they would maintain confidentiality regarding details of the intervention; opening additional research sites; and by raising awareness about the importance of contamination in research among participants.

CONCLUSION: Complex rehabilitation trials are at risk of contamination bias. The potential for contamination bias in studies can be minimized by strengthening collaboration and dialogue with the clinical community. Researchers should recognise that clinicians may contaminate a study through lack of research expertise.

Original languageEnglish
Article number46
Number of pages6
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2020


  • Care home research
  • Contamination
  • Falls
  • Randomised controlled trials

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