Background: A priori sample size calculation requires an a priori estimate of the size of the effect. An incorrect estimate may result in a sample size that is too low to detect effects or that is unnecessarily high. An alternative to a priori sample size calculation is Bayesian updating, a procedure that allows increasing sample size during the course of a study until sufficient support for a hypothesis is achieved. This procedure does not require and a priori estimate of the effect size. This paper introduces Bayesian updating to researchers in the biomedical field and presents a simulation study that gives insight in sample sizes that may be expected for two-group comparisons.
Methods: Bayesian updating uses the Bayes factor, which quantifies the degree of support for a hypothesis versus another one given the data. It can be re-calculated each time new subjects are added, without the need to correct for multiple interim analyses. A simulation study was conducted to study what sample size may be expected and how large the error rate is, that is, how often the Bayes factor shows most support for the hypothesis that was not used to generate the data.
Results: The results of the simulation study are presented in a Shiny app and summarized in this paper. Lower sample size is expected when the effect size is larger and the required degree of support is lower. However, larger error rates may be observed when a low degree of support is required and/or when the sample size at the start of the study is small. Furthermore, it may occur sufficient support for neither hypothesis is achieved when the sample size is bounded by a maximum.
Conclusions: Bayesian updating is a useful alternative to a priori sample size calculation, especially so in studies where additional subjects can be recruited easily and data become available in a limited amount of time. The results of the simulation study show how large a sample size can be expected and how large the error rate is.