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Nephron Clin Pract. 2010;114(3):c173-7. doi: 10.1159/000262299. Epub 2009 Nov 28.

Observational studies are complementary to randomized controlled trials.

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Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands.


Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard study design to investigate the effect of health interventions, including treatment. However, in some situations, it may be unnecessary, inappropriate, impossible, or inadequate to perform an RCT. In these special situations, well-designed observational studies, including cohort and case-control studies, may provide an alternative to doing nothing in order to obtain estimates of treatment effect. It should be noted that such studies should be performed with caution and correctly. The aims of this review are (1) to explain why RCTs are considered the optimal study design to evaluate treatment effects, (2) to describe the situations in which an RCT is not possible and observational studies are an adequate alternative, and (3) to explain when randomization is not needed and can be approximated in observational studies. Examples from the nephrology literature are used for illustration.

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