BACKGROUND: Participation rates in health surveys, recognized as an important quality dimension, have been declining over the years, which may affect representativeness and confidence in results. The Portuguese national health examination survey INSEF (2015) achieved a participation rate of 43.9%, which is in line with participation rates from other similar health examination surveys. The objective of this article is to describe how local teams of survey personnel conducted the survey, describing strategies used to solve practical survey problems and to try to increase the participation rate.
METHODS: After a literature search, informal interviews were conducted with 14 public health officials from local health examination teams, regional and central authorities. Forty-one of the local staff members (survey personnel) also filled in a short questionnaire anonymously. The interviews and self-administered questionnaires were analysed using mixed methods, informed by thematic analysis.
RESULTS: The local teams believed that the detailed manual, described as a "cookbook for making a health examination survey", made it possible to maintain high scientific standards while allowing for improvising solutions to problems in the local context. The quality of the manual, supported by a series of training workshops with the central research and support team, gave the teams the confidence and knowledge to implement local solutions. Motivation and cohesion within the local teams were among the goals of the training process. Local teams felt empowered by being given large responsibilities and worked hard to incite people to attend the examination through a close and persuasive approach. Local teams praised their INSA contacts for being available for assistance throughout the survey, and said they were inspired to try harder to reach participants to please their contacts for interpersonal reasons.
CONCLUSIONS: The theory of organizational improvisation or bricolage, which means using limited resources to solve problems, was useful to discuss and understand what took place during INSEF. A detailed manual covering standard procedures, continuous monitoring of the data collection and face-to-face workshops, including role-play, were vital to assure high scientific standards and high participation rates in this health examination survey. Close contacts between the central team and local focal points in all regions and all survey sites were key to accommodating unexpected challenges and innovative solutions.