Three-level cluster randomized trials (CRTs) are increasingly used in implementation science, where 2fold-nested-correlated data arise. For example, interventions are randomly assigned to practices, and providers within the same practice who provide care to participants are trained with the assigned intervention. Teerenstra et al proposed a nested exchangeable correlation structure that accounts for two levels of clustering within the generalized estimating equations (GEE) approach. In this article, we utilize GEE models to test the treatment effect in a two-group comparison for continuous, binary, or count data in three-level CRTs. Given the nested exchangeable correlation structure, we derive the asymptotic variances of the estimator of the treatment effect for different types of outcomes. When the number of clusters is small, researchers have proposed bias-corrected sandwich estimators to improve performance in two-level CRTs. We extend the variances of two bias-corrected sandwich estimators to three-level CRTs. The equal provider and practice sizes were assumed to calculate number of practices for simplicity. However, they are not guaranteed in practice. Relative efficiency (RE) is defined as the ratio of variance of the estimator of the treatment effect for equal to unequal provider and practice sizes. The expressions of REs are obtained from both asymptotic variance estimation and bias-corrected sandwich estimators. Their performances are evaluated for different scenarios of provider and practice size distributions through simulation studies. Finally, a percentage increase in the number of practices is proposed due to efficiency loss from unequal provider and/or practice sizes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3347-3372
Number of pages26
JournalStatistics in medicine
Issue number24
StatePublished - Oct 30 2020


  • bias-corrected sandwich estimator
  • cluster randomized trial
  • generalized estimating equation
  • nested correlation structure
  • relative efficiency


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