Background: The most commonly used survey methods are self-administered questionnaires, telephone interviews, and a mixture of both. But until now evidence out of randomised controlled trials as to whether patient responses differ depending on the survey mode is lacking. Therefore this study assessed whether patient responses to surveys depend on the mode of survey administration. The comparison was between mailed, self-administered questionnaires and telephone interviews.
Methods: A four-armed, randomised controlled two-period change-over design. Each patient responded to the same survey twice, once in written form and once by telephone interview, separated by at least a fortnight. The study was conducted in 2003/2004 in Germany. 1087 patients taking part in the German Acupuncture Trials (GERAC cohort study), who agreed to participate in a survey after completing acupuncture treatment from an acupuncture-certified family physician for headache, were randomised. Of these, 823 (664 women) from the ages of 18 to 83 (mean 51.7) completed both parts of the study. The main outcome measure was the comparison of the scores on the 12-Item Short-Form Health Survey (SF-12) and the Graded Chronic Pain Scale (GCPS) questionnaire for the two survey modes.
Results: Computer-aided telephone interviews (CATI) resulted in significantly fewer missing data (0.5%) than did mailed questionnaires (2.8%; p < 0.001). The analysis of equivalence revealed a difference between the survey modes only for the SF-12 mental scales. On average, reported mental status score was 3.5 score points (2.9 to 4.0) lower on the self-administered questionnaire compared to the telephone interview. The order of administration affected results. Patients who responded to the telephone interview first reported better mental health in the subsequent paper questionnaire (mean difference 2.8 score points) compared to those who responded to the paper questionnaire first (mean difference 4.1 score points).
Conclusion: Despite the comparatively high cost of telephone interviews, they offer clear advantages over mailed self-administered questionnaires as regards completeness of data. Only items concerning mental status were dependent on the survey mode and sequence of administration. Items on physical status were not affected. Normative data for standardized telephone questionnaires could contribute to a better comparability with the results of the corresponding standardized paper questionnaires.