Effects of phone versus mail survey methods on the measurement of health-related quality of life and emotional and behavioural problems in adolescents

Michael Erhart, Ralf M Wetzel, André Krügel, Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer
BMC Public Health 2009, 9: 491

BACKGROUND: Telephone interviews have become established as an alternative to traditional mail surveys for collecting epidemiological data in public health research. However, the use of telephone and mail surveys raises the question of to what extent the results of different data collection methods deviate from one another. We therefore set out to study possible differences in using telephone and mail survey methods to measure health-related quality of life and emotional and behavioural problems in children and adolescents.

METHODS: A total of 1700 German children aged 8-18 years and their parents were interviewed randomly either by telephone or by mail. Health-related Quality of Life (HRQoL) and mental health problems (MHP) were assessed using the KINDL-R Quality of Life instrument and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) children's self-report and parent proxy report versions. Mean Differences ("d" effect size) and differences in Cronbach alpha were examined across modes of administration. Pearson correlation between children's and parents' scores was calculated within a multi-trait-multi-method (MTMM) analysis and compared across survey modes using Fisher-Z transformation.

RESULTS: Telephone and mail survey methods resulted in similar completion rates and similar socio-demographic and socio-economic makeups of the samples. Telephone methods resulted in more positive self- and parent proxy reports of children's HRQoL (SMD < or = 0.27) and MHP (SMD < or = 0.32) on many scales. For the phone administered KINDL, lower Cronbach alpha values (self/proxy Total: 0.79/0.84) were observed (mail survey self/proxy Total: 0.84/0.87). KINDL MTMM results were weaker for the phone surveys: mono-trait-multi-method mean r = 0.31 (mail: r = 0.45); multi-trait-mono-method mean (self/parents) r = 0.29/0.36 (mail: r = 0.34/0.40); multi-trait-multi-method mean r = 0.14 (mail: r = 0.21). Weaker MTMM results were also observed for the phone administered SDQ: mono-trait-multi-method mean r = 0.32 (mail: r = 0.40); multi-trait-mono-method mean (self/parents) r = 0.24/0.30 (mail: r = 0.20/0.32); multi-trait-multi-method mean r = 0.14 (mail = 0.14). The SDQ classification into borderline and abnormal for some scales was affected by the method (OR = 0.36-1.55).

CONCLUSIONS: The observed differences between phone and mail surveys are small but should be regarded as relevant in certain settings. Therefore, while both methods are valid, some changes are necessary. The weaker reliability and MTMM validity associated with phone methods necessitates improved phone adaptations of paper and pencil questionnaires. The effects of phone versus mail survey modes are partly different across constructs/measures.

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