Addressing the Complexities of Survey Research

This chapter of “Nursing Policy Research: Turning Evidence-Based Research into Health Policy” reviews the conceptual and practical issues related to conducting surveys, including development of the research topic and survey questions, maximizing data collection, and coping with common problems.

Surveys, and particularly mail surveys, have proven to be an effective and inexpensive method to collect data related to nursing workforce and health care policy issues. If a survey is done well, data collected from a sample can be generalized to a population, and combined with data from other sources to answer larger questions.

Key Findings:

  • Defining a specific and clear research question that can be answered quantitatively is a critical first-step in survey design and may entail an extensive process of research and testing of its own.
  • Every aspect of the survey tool must be carefully considered and tested in order to develop “clear and concise questions that will produce valid and reliable measures” in the “fewest questions possible.”
  • Focus groups can be useful in developing the overall research question; formulating the survey questions, answers and questionnaire order and design; and filling in data gaps revealed post-survey.
  • Mail surveys are popular and inexpensive but require knowledge and skill to ensure the correct sample receives and adequately responds to the survey.
  • An inadequate response rate can invalidate a survey. The “Tailored Design Method, which reliably produces a 50-60 percent response rate in mail surveys, lays out specific “how-to’s” regarding everything from the design of the cover letter, to the type of postage to affix to the envelope, to the five-step sequence of attempts to reach the sample.

Finally, the authors detail their own experience conducting one problematic survey. As they note, knowing how to design and conduct successful surveys is a worthwhile and well-respected skill for nursing workforce researchers to acquire, despite its challenges.