Response rates to mail surveys published in medical journals

J Clin Epidemiol. 1997 Oct;50(10):1129-36. doi: 10.1016/s0895-4356(97)00126-1.


Objective: The purpose of this study was to characterize response rates for mail surveys published in medical journals; to determine how the response rate among subjects who are typical targets of mail surveys varies; and to evaluate the contribution of several techniques used by investigators to enhance response rates.

Methods: One hundred seventy-eight manuscripts published in 1991, representing 321 distinct mail surveys, were abstracted to determine response rates and survey techniques. In a follow-up mail survey, 113 authors of these manuscripts provided supplementary information.

Results: The mean response rate among mail surveys published in medical journals is approximately 60%. However, response rates vary according to subject studied and techniques used. Published surveys of physicians have a mean response rate of only 54%, and those of non-physicians have a mean response rate of 68%. In addition, multivariable models suggest that written reminders provided with a copy of the instrument and telephone reminders are each associated with response rates about 13% higher than surveys that do not use these techniques. Other techniques, such as anonymity and financial incentives, are not associated with higher response rates.

Conclusions: Although several mail survey techniques are associated with higher response rates, response rates to published mail surveys tend to be moderate. However, a survey's response rate is at best an indirect indication of the extent of non-respondent bias. Investigators, journal editors, and readers should devote more attention to assessments of bias, and less to specific response rate thresholds.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Allied Health Personnel
  • Bias
  • Data Collection / economics
  • Data Collection / methods*
  • Health Services Research
  • Humans
  • Periodicals as Topic*
  • Physicians
  • Postal Service
  • Regression Analysis
  • Research Design
  • United States
  • Writing