Converting from face-to-face to postal follow-up and its effects on participant retention, response rates and errors: lessons from the EQUAL study in the UK

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2022 Feb 11;22(1):44. doi: 10.1186/s12874-021-01453-0.


Background: Prospective cohort studies are challenging to deliver, with one of the main difficulties lying in retention of participants. The need to socially distance during the COVID-19 pandemic has added to this challenge. The pre-COVID-19 adaptation of the European Quality (EQUAL) study in the UK to a remote form of follow-up for efficiency provides lessons for those who are considering changing their study design.

Methods: The EQUAL study is an international prospective cohort study of patients ≥65 years of age with advanced chronic kidney disease. Initially, patients were invited to complete a questionnaire (SF-36, Dialysis Symptom Index and Renal Treatment Satisfaction Questionnaire) at research clinics every 3-6 months, known as "traditional follow-up" (TFU). In 2018, all living patients were invited to switch to "efficient follow-up" (EFU), which used an abbreviated questionnaire consisting of SF-12 and Dialysis Symptom Index. These were administered centrally by post. Response rates were calculated using returned questionnaires as a proportion of surviving invitees, and error rates presented as the average percentage of unanswered questions or unclear answers, of total questions in returned questionnaires. Response and error rates were calculated 6-monthly in TFU to allow comparisons with EFU.

Results: Of the 504 patients initially recruited, 236 were still alive at the time of conversion to EFU; 111 of these (47%) consented to the change in follow-up. In those who consented, median TFU was 34 months, ranging from 0 to 42 months. Their response rates fell steadily from 88% (98/111) at month 0 of TFU, to 20% (3/15) at month 42. The response rate for the first EFU questionnaire was 60% (59/99) of those alive from TFU. With this improvement in response rates, the first EFU also lowered errors to baseline levels seen in early follow-up, after having almost trebled throughout traditional follow-up.

Conclusions: Overall, this study demonstrates that administration of shorter follow-up questionnaires by post rather than in person does not negatively impact patient response or error rates. These results may be reassuring for researchers who are trying to limit face-to-face contact with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keywords: Chronic kidney disease; Errors; Follow-up; Prospective cohort study; Response rates; Retention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Prospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology