A framework for exploring non-response patterns over time in health surveys

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Background: Most health surveys have experienced a decline in response rates. A structured approach to evaluate whether a decreasing - and potentially more selective - response over time biased estimated trends in health behaviours is lacking. We developed a framework to explore the role of differential non-response over time. This framework was applied to a repeated cross-sectional survey in which the response rate gradually declined. Methods: We used data from a survey conducted biannually between 1995 and 2017 in the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Information on the sociodemographic determinants of age, sex, and ethnicity was available for respondents and non-respondents. The main outcome measures of prevalence of sport participation and watching TV were only available for respondents. The framework consisted of four steps: 1) investigating the sociodemographic determinants of responding to the survey and the difference in response over time between sociodemographic groups; 2) estimating variation in health behaviour over time; 3) comparing weighted and unweighted prevalence estimates of health behaviour over time; and 4) comparing associations between sociodemographic determinants and health behaviour over time. Results: The overall response rate per survey declined from 47% in 1995 to 15% in 2017. The probability of responding was higher among older people, females, and those with a Western background. The response rate declined in all subgroups, and a faster decline was observed among younger persons and those with a non-Western ethnicity as compared to older persons and those with a Western ethnicity. Variation in health behaviours remained constant. Prevalence estimates and associations did not follow the changes in response over time. On the contrary, the difference in probability of participating in sport gradually decreased between males and females, while no differential change in the response rate was observed. Conclusions: Providing insights on non-response patterns over time is essential to understand whether declines in response rates may have influenced estimated trends in health behaviours. The framework outlined in this study can be used for this purpose. In our example, in spite of a major decline in response rate, there was no evidence that the risk of non-response bias increased over time.

Original languageEnglish
Article number37
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Berdi Christiaanse and Frouwkje de Waart (Municipality of Rotterdam) for providing the required datasets of the Rotterdam leisure-time survey.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

Research programs

  • EMC OR-01


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