Tips from the Field…

Subject Tracking Part 2: Finding Your Subject

By the Boston ARCH RAs: Margo Godersky, Kate Haworth, Keshia Toussaint, and Laura Vercammen

The previous issue of the URBAN ARCH Newsletter featured the first step of subject tracking in a longitudinal study—collecting high-quality contact information. Over time, challenges like homelessness, substance use disorders, incarcerations, housing instability, low income and inconsistent phone numbers may make it difficult to maintain contact with your subject. It is important to fully utilize the information collected at the initial visit, including alternate contacts as well as any contextual clues regarding the subject’s whereabouts (for example, the subject mentioned a history of incarceration, homelessness, programs, etc.). The second step of subject tracking is to re-establish contact with the subject. Remember to obtain IRB approval prior to using any of these methods.

  • Subject Contact Information
    • If you are unable to get in touch with your subject, but you have an active phone number for him/her, call the subject at various times during the day or on the weekends. Also try calling the subject from a blocked number, or another work cell phone (if available). ”
    • It may be difficult to contact subjects who use minute (or “pay as you go”) cell phone plans. If the subject runs out of minutes, text messaging may be an effective means of communication. Additionally, try calling the subject a few days after the first day of the month, when many phone plans are reactivated.
    • If you do not have an active phone number for the subject, other helpful forms of communication include mailing letters to the subject’s address, or e-mail.
    • If you are not able to get in touch with the subject directly, reach out to the specific individuals that that subject gave you permission to contact for tracking purposes.
  • Alternate Contacts
    • Call the alternate contacts to see if they have an updated phone number of address for the subject.
    • For example: “Hello is this, [name of alternate contact]? This is [name of research associate], and I’m calling you because I am looking to get in touch with [name of subject], who listed you as a contact. Do you have an updated phone number or address for him/her? Would you also be able to pass along a message with my contact information?”
    • As a reminder, it is crucial to protect the subject’s confidentiality when communicating with alternate contacts. The research associate should only provide the details necessary to get updated contact information. (e.g.,you can mention the health study but do not disclose the nature of the study).
    • You can also send letters and emails to alternate contacts. As mentioned in the first edition, a letter with the subject’s signature requesting updated contact information for that subject may increase the likelihood of a response.
  • Contacting Programs/Hospitals etc.
    • Use a Release of Protected Health Information Form (PHI) to contact places that require additional permission to disclose information about a subject.
    • Other places to look:
      • Use IRB-approved methods of subject tracking to review patient records (if available) to find places that the subject may be located (i.e. inpatient programs, shelters, etc.) services they may be using, new phone numbers and/or addresses, alternate contacts, etc.
      • Use web-based search engines (i.e. Google) and white pages.
      • If recruitment occurs in a clinic or outpatient setting, research associates can meet subjects in-person at appointments to update contact information and/or remind subjects about upcoming study visits.
      • If the research staff works with a data management team, generating reports of subjects’ upcoming appointments, hospital admissions, etc. is a useful method to track their utilization of local resources. Use the VINE Link to search for incarcerated subjects. (VINE Link does not include records from every facility. If you believe that your subject may be incarcerated, but the subject does not appear on the website, contact the records department at local facilities to see if he/she is in custody.

    It is essential to study retention to create a contact plan for your subjects that includes periodic check-ins and updating contact information at every opportunity (including scheduled study visits). Document all of your interactions with subjects in order to track the progres of your efforts; this will also allow you to determine which methods of contact work best for individual subjects, and permit other team member to assist in tracking your subject.