Background: Attrition, or dropout, is a problem faced by many online health interventions, potentially threatening the inferential value of online randomized controlled trials.
Objective: In the context of a randomized controlled trial of an online weight management intervention, where 85% of the baseline participants were lost to follow-up at the 12-month measurement, the objective was to examine the effect of nonresponse on key outcomes and explore ways to reduce attrition in follow-up surveys.
Methods: A sample of 700 non-respondents to the 12-month online follow-up survey was randomly assigned to a mail or telephone nonresponse follow-up survey. We examined response rates in the two groups, costs of follow-up, reasons for nonresponse, and mode effects. We ran several logistic regression models, predicting response or nonresponse to the 12-month online survey as well as predicting response or nonresponse to the follow-up survey.
Results: We analyzed 210 follow-up respondents in the mail and 170 in the telephone group. Response rates of 59% and 55% were obtained for the telephone and mail nonresponse follow-up surveys, respectively. A total of 197 respondents (51.8%) gave reasons related to technical issues or email as a means of communication, with older people more likely to give technical reasons for non-completion; 144 (37.9%) gave reasons related to the intervention or the survey itself. Mail follow-up was substantially cheaper: We estimate that the telephone survey cost about US $34 per sampled case, compared to US $15 for the mail survey. The telephone responses were subject to possible social desirability effects, with the telephone respondents reporting significantly greater weight loss than the mail respondents. The respondents to the nonresponse follow-up did not differ significantly from the 12-month online respondents on key outcome variables.
Conclusions: Mail is an effective way to reduce attrition to online surveys, while telephone follow-up might lead to overestimating the weight loss for both the treatment and control groups. Nonresponse bias does not appear to be a significant factor in the conclusions drawn from the randomized controlled trial.