Background In a cross-sectional stepped-wedge trial with unequal cluster sizes, attained power in the trial depends on the realized allocation of the clusters. This attained power may differ from the expected power calculated using standard formulae by averaging the attained power over all allocations the randomization algorithm can generate. We investigated the effect of design factors and allocation characteristics on attained power and developed models to predict attained power based on allocation characteristics.
Method Based on data simulated and analyzed using linear mixed-effects models, we evaluated the distribution of attained powers under different scenarios with varying intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) of the responses, coefficient of variation (CV) of the cluster sizes, number of cluster-size groups, distributions of group sizes, and number of clusters. We explored the relationship between attained power and two allocation characteristics: the individual-level correlation between treatment status and time period, and the absolute treatment group imbalance. When computational time was excessive due to a scenario having a large number of possible allocations, we developed regression models to predict attained power using the treatment-vs-time period correlation and absolute treatment group imbalance as predictors.
Results The risk of attained power falling more than 5% below the expected or nominal power decreased as the ICC or number of clusters increased and as the CV decreased. Attained power was strongly affected by the treatment-vs-time period correlation. The absolute treatment group imbalance had much less impact on attained power. The attained power for any allocation was predicted accurately using a regression model that included linear and quadratic terms for the treatment-vs-time period correlation and a linear term for the absolute treatment group imbalance.
Conclusion In a stepped-wedge trial with unequal cluster sizes, the risk that randomization yields an allocation with inadequate attained power is a function of the ICC, the CV of the cluster sizes, and number of clusters. To reduce the computational burden of simulating attained power for allocations, the attained power can be predicted via regression modeling. Trial designers can reduce the risk of low attained power by restricting the randomization algorithm to avoid allocations with large treatment-vs-time period correlations.