A critically important aspect of any study is determining the appropriate sample size to answer the research question. This module will focus on formulas that can be used to estimate the sample size needed to produce a confidence interval estimate with a specified margin of error (precision) or to ensure that a test of hypothesis has a high probability of detecting a meaningful difference in the parameter.
Studies should be designed to include a sufficient number of participants to adequately address the research question. Studies that have either an inadequate number of participants or an excessively large number of participants are both wasteful in terms of participant and investigator time, resources to conduct the assessments, analytic efforts and so on. These situations can also be viewed as unethical as participants may have been put at risk as part of a study that was unable to answer an important question. Studies that are much larger than they need to be to answer the research questions are also wasteful.
The formulas presented here generate estimates of the necessary sample size(s) required based on statistical criteria. However, in many studies, the sample size is determined by financial or logistical constraints. For example, suppose a study is proposed to evaluate a new screening test for Down Syndrome. Suppose that the screening test is based on analysis of a blood sample taken from women early in pregnancy. In order to evaluate the properties of the screening test (e.g., the sensitivity and specificity), each pregnant woman will be asked to provide a blood sample and in addition to undergo an amniocentesis. The amniocentesis is included as the gold standard and the plan is to compare the results of the screening test to the results of the amniocentesis. Suppose that the collection and processing of the blood sample costs $250 per participant and that the amniocentesis costs $900 per participant. These financial constraints alone might substantially limit the number of women that can be enrolled. Just as it is important to consider both statistical and clinical significance when interpreting results of a statistical analysis, it is also important to weigh both statistical and logistical issues in determining the sample size for a study.
After completing this module, you will be able to:
- Provide examples demonstrating how the margin of error, effect size and variability of the outcome affect sample size computations.
- Compute the sample size required to estimate population parameters with precision.
- Interpret statistical power in tests of hypothesis.
- Compute the sample size required to ensure high power when hypothesis testing.
Created by Wayne Lamorte, MD, PhD, MPH and Lisa Sullivan, PhD