ABSTRACT: Practical trials in medical education: linking theory, practice and decision making
Concerns have been raised over the gap between education theory and practice and how research can contribute to inform decision makers on their choices and priorities. Little is known about how educational theories and research outcomes produced under optimal conditions in highly controlled settings generalise to the real-life education context. One way of bridging this gap is applying the concept of practical trials in medical education. In this paper we elaborate on characteristics of practical trials and based on examples from medical education we discuss the challenges, limitations and future directions for this kind of research.
Practical trials have the overall aim of informing decision makers. They are carried out in real-life settings and are characterised by (i) comparison of viable alternative education strategies, (ii) broad inclusion criteria regarding participants across several settings and (iii) multiple outcome measures with long-term follow-up to evaluate both benefits and risks. Questions posed by practical trials may be proactive in applying theory in the development of educational innovations or reactive to educational reforms and innovations. Non-inferiority or equivalence designs are recommended when comparing viable alternatives and the use of crossover designs, cluster randomisation or stepped wedge trial designs are feasible when studying implementations across several settings. Outcome measures may include variables related to learners, teachers, educational administration, quality of care, patient outcomes and cost.
Practical trials in medical education may contribute to bridge the gap between education theory and practice and aid decision makers in making evidence-based choices and priorities. Conducting practical trials is not without challenges and rigorous design and methods must be applied. Of concern is that the practical focus may lead to failure to include a sound theoretical basis in the research questions and the interventions studied, and that authors fail to obtain informed consent from their participants.