Background: Non-response is a major concern among substance use epidemiologists. When differences exist between respondents and non-respondents, survey estimates may be biased. Therefore, researchers have developed time-consuming strategies to convert non-respondents to respondents. The present study examines whether late respondents (converted former non-participants) differ from early respondents, non-consenters or silent refusers (consent givers but non-participants) in a cohort study, and whether non-response bias can be reduced by converting former non-respondents.
Methods: 6099 French- and 5720 German-speaking Swiss 20-year-old males (more than 94% of the source population) completed a short questionnaire on substance use outcomes and socio-demographics, independent of any further participation in a cohort study. Early respondents were those participating in the cohort study after standard recruitment procedures. Late respondents were non-respondents that were converted through individual encouraging telephone contact. Early respondents, non-consenters and silent refusers were compared to late respondents using logistic regressions. Relative non-response biases for early respondents only, for respondents only (early and late) and for consenters (respondents and silent refusers) were also computed.
Results: Late respondents showed generally higher patterns of substance use than did early respondents, but lower patterns than did non-consenters and silent refusers. Converting initial non-respondents to respondents reduced the non-response bias, which might be further reduced if silent refusers were converted to respondents.
Conclusion: Efforts to convert refusers are effective in reducing non-response bias. However, converted late respondents cannot be seen as proxies of non-respondents, and are at best only indicative of existing response bias due to persistent non-respondents.
Keywords: Early respondent; Later respondent; Non-response bias; Substance use; Young men.
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