Empirical evidence of recruitment bias in a network study of people who inject drugs

Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2019;45(5):460-469. doi: 10.1080/00952990.2019.1584203. Epub 2019 Mar 21.


Background: Epidemiologic surveys of people who inject drugs (PWID) can be difficult to conduct because potential participants may fear exposure or legal repercussions. Respondent-driven sampling (RDS) is a procedure in which subjects recruit their eligible social contacts. The statistical validity of RDS surveys of PWID and other risk groups depends on subjects recruiting at random from among their network contacts. Objectives: We sought to develop and apply a rigorous definition and statistical tests for uniform network recruitment in an RDS survey. Methods: We undertook a detailed study of recruitment bias in a unique RDS study of PWID in Hartford, CT, the USA in which the network, individual-level covariates, and social link attributes were recorded. A total of n=527 participants (402 male, 123 female, and two individuals who did not specify their gender) within a network of 2626 PWID were recruited. Results: We found strong evidence of recruitment bias with respect to age, homelessness, and social relationship characteristics. In the discrete model, the estimated hazard ratios regarding the significant features of recruitment time and choice of recruitee were: alter's age 1.03 [1.02, 1.05], alter's crack-using status 0.70 [0.50, 1.00], homelessness difference 0.61 [0.43, 0.87], and sharing activities in drug preparation 2.82 [1.39, 5.72]. Under both the discrete and continuous-time recruitment regression models, we reject the null hypothesis of uniform recruitment. Conclusions: The results provide the evidence that for this study population of PWID, recruitment bias may significantly alter the sample composition, making results of RDS surveys less reliable. More broadly, RDS studies that fail to collect comprehensive network data may not be able to detect biased recruitment when it occurs.

Keywords: Injection drug use; network sampling; social link tracing; survival analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Female
  • Homeless Persons
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Patient Selection*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Selection Bias*
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / epidemiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors