Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine whether Internet-based surveys of health professionals can provide a valid alternative to traditional survey methods.
Methods: (i) Systematic review of published Internet-based surveys of health professionals focusing on criteria of external validity, specifically sample representativeness and response bias. (ii) Internet-based survey of GPs, exploring attitudes about using an Internet-based decision support system for the management of familial cancer.
Results: The systematic review identified 17 Internet-based surveys of health professionals. Whilst most studies sampled from professional e-directories, some studies drew on unknown denominator populations by placing survey questionnaires on open web sites or electronic discussion groups. Twelve studies reported response rates, which ranged from nine to 94%. Sending follow-up reminders resulted in a substantial increase in response rates. In our own survey of GPs, a total of 268 GPs participated (adjusted response rate = 52.4%) after five e-mail reminders. A further 72 GPs responded to a brief telephone survey of non-respondents. Respondents to the Internet survey were more likely to be male and had significantly greater intentions to use Internet-based decision support than non-respondents.
Conclusions: Internet-based surveys provide an attractive alternative to postal and telephone surveys of health professionals, but they raise important technical and methodological issues which should be carefully considered before widespread implementation. The major obstacle is external validity, and specifically how to obtain a representative sample and adequate response rate. Controlled access to a national list of NHSnet e-mail addresses of health professionals could provide a solution.