Open Access Research article

Effect of survey instrument on participation in a follow-up study: a randomization study of a mailed questionnaire versus a computer-assisted telephone interview

Carissa M Rocheleau12*, Paul A Romitti1, Stacey Hockett Sherlock1, Wayne T Sanderson3, Erin M Bell4 and Charlotte Druschel45

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology, College of Public Health, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, 52242, USA

2 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati, OH, 45226, USA

3 Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, College of Public Health, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, 52242, USA

4 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, State University of New York at Albany, Rensselaer, NY, 12144, USA

5 New York State Department of Health, Troy, NY, 12180, USA

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:579  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-579

Published: 31 July 2012



Many epidemiological and public health surveys report increasing difficulty obtaining high participation rates. We conducted a pilot follow-up study to determine whether a mailed or telephone survey would better facilitate data collection in a subset of respondents to an earlier telephone survey conducted as part of the National Birth Defects Prevention Study.


We randomly assigned 392 eligible mothers to receive a self-administered, mailed questionnaire (MQ) or a computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) using similar recruitment protocols. If mothers gave permission to contact the fathers, fathers were recruited to complete the same instrument (MQ or CATI) as mothers.


Mothers contacted for the MQ, within all demographic strata examined, were more likely to participate than those contacted for the CATI (86.6% vs. 70.6%). The median response time for mothers completing the MQ was 17 days, compared to 29 days for mothers completing the CATI. Mothers completing the MQ also required fewer reminder calls or letters to finish participation versus those assigned to the CATI (median 3 versus 6), though they were less likely to give permission to contact the father (75.0% vs. 85.8%). Fathers contacted for the MQ, however, had higher participation compared to fathers contacted for the CATI (85.2% vs. 54.5%). Fathers recruited to the MQ also had a shorter response time (median 17 days) and required fewer reminder calls and letters (median 3 reminders) than those completing the CATI (medians 28 days and 6 reminders).


We concluded that offering a MQ substantially improved participation rates and reduced recruitment effort compared to a CATI in this study. While a CATI has the advantage of being able to clarify answers to complex questions or eligibility requirements, our experience suggests that a MQ might be a good survey option for some studies.