Phone calls to retain research participants and determinants of reachability in an african setting: Observational study

Melvin Draaijer, Samanta Tresha Lalla-Edward, Willem Daniel Francois Venter, Alinda Vos*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Long-term retention of research participants in studies is challenging. In research in sub-Saharan Africa, phone calls are the most frequently used method to distantly engage with participants. Objective: We aimed to get insight into the effectiveness of phone calls to retain contact with participants and evaluated determinants of reachability. Methods: A cross-sectional study was performed using the databases of two randomized controlled trials investigating different kinds of antiretroviral therapy in HIV-positive patients. One trial finished in 2018 (study 1), and the other finished in 2015 (study 2). A random sample size of 200 participants per study was obtained. There were up to 3 phone numbers available per participant collected during the studies. Participants received a maximum of 3 phone calls on every available number on different days and at different times. Voicemails were left, and emails sent wherever possible. We documented how many calls were answered, who answered, as well as after how many attempts participants were reached. To further increase our understanding of reachability, we conducted a short questionnaire assessing factors contributing to reachability. The study was approved by the Research Ethics Committee of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa (reference number M1811107). Results: In our sample size of n=200 per study, study 1, with a median time of 11 months since the last visit at the research site, had a response rate of 70.5% (141/200) participants while study 2, with a median duration of 55 months since the last visit, had a response rate of 50.0% (100/200; P<.001). In study 1, 61.5% (123/200) of calls were answered directly by the participant while this was 36.0% (72/200) in study 2 (P=.003). The likelihood of reaching a participant decreased with time (odds ratio [OR] 0.73, 95% CI 0.63 to 0.84) for every year since the last face-to-face visit. Having more phone numbers per participant increased reachability (OR 2.32, 95% CI 1.24 to 4.36 for 2 phone numbers and OR 3.03, 95% CI 1.48 to 6.22 for 3 phone numbers compared with 1 number). A total of 141 of 241 reached participants responded to the questionnaire. Of the 93 participants who had changed phone numbers, 5% (50/93) had changed numbers because their phone was stolen. The most preferred method of being contacted was direct calling (128/141) with participants naming this method followed by WhatsApp (69/141). Conclusions: Time since last visit and the number of phone numbers listed were the only determinants of reachability. Longer follow-up time is accompanied with a decrease in reachability by phone while more listed phone numbers increases the likelihood that someone can be reached.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere19138
JournalJMIR formative research
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2020

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