Tips from the Field…

Subject Tracking Part 1: Collecting Contact Information

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

What makes a population difficult to track for research studies? Factors like homelessness, substance use disorders, incarcerations, housing instability, low income and inconsistent phone numbers present challenges to tracking subjects. Several strategies can be implemented by the Research Associate to ensure high follow-up rates. This series will focus on different ways to establish effective subject tracking throughout a longitudinal study. The first step in this process is to collect good contact information at the initial visit. Before you use any of these methods, ensure you have Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval.

Tricks of the trade and common phrases from the field:

  • Collect multiple phone numbers and email/mailing addresses for participant.
    • “Where do you get your mail?”
    • “Where do you usually sleep? Do you have a contact there (e.g. at a shelter)?”
    • “Where do you spend most of your time?”
    • “Do you have an email address?”
    • “Are you on Facebook or other social media networks?”
  • Ask for additional details about the best way to reach participant.
    • What is the best time of day to call you?”
    • “Can I text you at this number?”
    • “Do you work during the day or evening?”
    • “Can I leave a voicemail at this number? Do you check your voicemail often?
  • Collect phone numbers and email/mailing addresses for at least 4 alternate contacts. Alternate contacts are crucial to maintaining follow-up. The Research Associate should emphasize the protection of confidentiality when communicating with alternate contacts.
    • “If I cannot get in touch with you, who would be the BEST person to contact?”
    • “How often do you communicate with this person?”
    • “I’m looking for someone who would know if you change your phone number/address. This does not have to be someone who you speak with daily, or who lives in the same state.”
    • “Are there any programs/organizations that you are in contact with? Can I list a case manager, advocate etc. at one of these places?”
    • “I need to collect contact information for at least 4-5 people.”
      • Always ask the participant to share a greater number of contacts than the minimum number actually needed for tracking purposes. For example, if the Research Associate needs to collect 3 alternate contacts, s/he should tell all participants that the expectation for participation is that they will provide 5 alternate contacts. When presented with an expectation of 5, resistant participants may respond well to a compromise and provide the requisite 3.
  • Ask the participant to sign a letter requesting updated contact information for that person; this letter can later be sent to alternate contacts, who might be more likely to provide updated contact information after seeing a signed letter from the participant.
  • Ask the participant to notify you when they get new contact information (e.g., phone number, email). Study staff can give out pre-stamped and addressed envelopes so subjects can send in updated contact details. Consider providing a small incentive for these notifications (e.g., $5 gift card or cell phone minutes).

Research Associates should emphasize that they will maintain confidentiality when they reach out to alternate contacts. If participants comprehend the significance of the study, they are more likely to be invested in the outcome, and remain engaged throughout follow-up. The importance of collecting contact information should therefore be explained, particularly to subjects who express hesitation about providing alternate contacts.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in a future issue… What to do when you can’t find your subject!