Despite Potential to Overwhelm, Surveys Still Essential Research Tool


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Mark Clemons, MD

With the Internet, people are getting bombarded with all sorts of different types of surveys, and people are getting a bit ‘surveyed out.’ Surveys are still important though. They are one of the few research tools that can really drive change, improve the standard of care, and have an overall societal benefit.

—Mark Clemons, MD

The age of the Internet and worldwide connectivity has made it easier than ever to send out surveys to a wide audience quickly and easily. This ease of access can make surveys an affordable and readily available research tool for independent investigators, but it can also make surveys an inbox-crowding nuisance.

“With the Internet, people are getting bombarded with all sorts of different types of surveys, and people are getting a bit ‘surveyed out,’” said Mark Clemons, MD, of the Division of Medical Oncology at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, Ottawa, Ontario. “Surveys are still important though. They are one of the few research tools that can really drive change, improve the standard of care, and have an overall societal benefit.”

Dr. Clemons and colleagues recently published a Perspective piece titled “Surviving Surveys” in the Journal of Oncology Practice discussing why physicians should still pay attention to academic surveys and offering tips to investigators to help their survey get responses.1

Survey Explosion

In their article, Dr. Clemons and colleagues grouped surveys into three categories: (1) surveys sent by pharmaceutical companies, (2) surveys sent for input about clinical trials or clinical practice guidelines, and (3) surveys sent by investigators researching clinical or practice-related topics.

A search of the Scopus database for publications in oncology based on investigator-initiated surveys showed a marked increase in the number of manuscripts citing academic survey research published between 2004 and 2013. However, Dr. Clemons and colleagues pointed out that research has shown a substantial decline in survey response rates in recent years, ranging from 36% to 59%, with Internet-based surveys frequently having lower response rates than traditional mail-based ­surveys.

These decreasing response rates should be of concern to the oncology community, Dr. Clemons said.

“Without robust response rates, we will not know if survey results are generalizable to a real-world setting,” Dr. Clemons said. “It is possible that with response rates in the 20% level that the types of people who are responding [to the survey] may be practicing differently than the 80% who are not responding.”

Valuable Research Tool

According to the Perspective piece, surveys are a key research tool used to gauge how patients are treated in the real world and to gather the opinions of physicians treating them.

The investigators provided several reasons why physicians should actively participate in surveys when able.

First, a response, even a negative response, can affect survey results. At a minimum, replying to a survey indicating that one does not treat a particular disease may help get a physician removed from an irrelevant mailing list.

Second, survey-based research can play an important role in patient care and determining funding decisions related to specific problems or diseases. Third, surveys provide physicians with an outlet to get their opinions heard. Finally, a physician’s willingness to participate allows them to contribute to improving patient care.

“Surveys also help the career development of the new generation of physicians who are going to be looking after us all in the future,” Dr. Clemons said.

Surveys offer a unique opportunity to bring young investigators forward into the research world. By answering surveys, physicians can help enable trainees to get great research training and, ultimately, become independent investigators, he said.

Make Surveys Stand Out

Dr. Clemons said that even within his large academic group surveys are great research tools to investigate physician opinions and practices, especially as peer-reviewed research funding budgets decrease.

He and his colleagues offered several tips to investigators who use surveys to help gain respondents:

Use a total design approach, which focuses on providing an incentive, designing user-friendly questionnaires, employing a follow-up strategy, and providing a return stamped envelope.

Keep the survey brief and personalized to get optimal response rates.

Implement follow-up, such as with an additional copy of the survey at a later time, or following up via the telephone.

“Keep it short and keep it topical,” Dr. Clemons recommended. ■

Reference

1. Mazzarello S, Clemons M, Graham ID, et al: Surviving surveys. J Oncol Pract. August 5, 2014 (early release online).

© 2014. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.

 



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