Background: Surveys serve essential roles in clinical epidemiology and health services research. However, physician surveys frequently encounter problems achieving adequate response rates. Research on enhancing response rates to surveys of the general public has led to the development of Dillman's "Total Design Approach" to the design and conduct of surveys. The impact of this approach on response rates among physicians is uncertain.
Objective: To determine the extent to which the components of the total design approach have been found to be effective in physician surveys.
Design: A systematic review.
Results: The effectiveness of prepaid financial incentives, special contacts, and personalization to enhance response rates in surveys of physicians have been confirmed by the existing research. There is suggestive evidence supporting the use of first class stamps on return envelopes and multiple contacts. The optimum amount for incentives and the number of contacts necessary have not been established. Details of questionnaire design and their impact on response rates have received almost no attention from researchers. Few studies have assessed the usefulness of combinations of components of the total design approach.
Conclusions: Despite the number of surveys conducted among physicians, their cost, the level of interest in their findings, and in spite of inadequate response rates, there have been few randomized trials conducted on important aspects of enhancing response in this population. Until this gap has been filled, researchers conducting surveys of physicians should consider including all components of the total design approach whenever feasible.