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Are You Asking the Right Question?

Published: 8/10/2016

Questionnaire-based methods are an essential component of the research armamentarium. The latest issue of Journal of Small Animal Practice features two papers where the authors have employed them in their work.

Sajik et al [] used owner questionnaires to enhance data on long-term follow up of the functional outcome of dogs following traumatic canine elbow luxation. Moore et al [] used a questionnaire approach to document patterns in the way that veterinary neurologists and veterinary surgeons manage acute spinal cord injury caused by acute canine intervertebral disc herniation. If you’re thinking of using questionnaires in your next piece of veterinary clinical research, check out this article by Gerry Polton on the subject. Gerry is a RCVS and European Recognized Specialist in Veterinary Oncology, based at North Downs Specialist Referrals in the UK and is Editorial Advisor on JSAP.

Clinical research involves the gathering of data pertinent to the hypothesis or question under investigation and its subsequent analysis. Veterinary scientists are all familiar with the notion of objective numerical data; it surrounds us all day, every day – heart rate, temperature, PCV, vertebral heart score. What is perhaps less familiar is that the notion that an answer to a question might also represent a form of data. Indeed, the study of human behaviour, thinking patterns and motivations requires data in the form of elicited responses. Questionnaire-based research underpins what might be termed the soft sciences: psychology, social science. In the 21st century, such methods are no longer considered to be inferior. Integration of these ‘soft’ research methods into veterinary science enables us to understand important elements of veterinary practice that would otherwise be beyond our reach.

Ensuring that a questionnaire actually gains the data intended can be a challenge. The greater the clarity of the questions put, the more meaningful the results. Different question types are suited to different scenarios. If the objective of a questionnaire is simply to determine whether acquisition of certain information has influenced a subsequent decision, a closed question is appropriate. For example, did reading this editorial make you think about performing your own questionnaire-based research project? Answer yes if it did and no if it did not. Inviting respondents to provide further detail might fog interpretation of the results and complicate analysis. However, some people might be unsure; the available answers would have failed to capture those readers. The question has then failed to generate data that are truly representative of the population under investigation.

If the purpose of a questionnaire is to gather the range of opinions on a matter, a closed question is deficient. It limits the available answers to those that had already been considered by the questionnaire. In this circumstance, open questions are more appropriate: what did reading this editorial make you think? The respondent is then free to provide their own constructive feedback. The questionnaire would continue canvassing opinion until no new responses are returned. Researchers must be aware of the impact of the fact of their asking a question on a respondent's possible answers. The construction of a question can be very persuasive; this is described as rhetorical. But even with very direct or non-persuasive questions, it is a challenge to avoid this bias.

Questionnaires can help us to understand how and why our patients’ owners make the decisions that they do. This is surely a vital piece of the puzzle if we are to enable ourselves to achieve the best outcomes for our patients. And who is best placed to ask the questions, the answers to which will help us understand front-line veterinary practice? Open question or rhetoric?

Read the full editorial “Questionnaire-based clinical research” by Gerry Polton.