BACKGROUND: Longitudinal studies are of aetiological and public health relevance but can be undermined by attrition. The aim of this paper was to identify effective retention strategies to increase participation in population-based cohort studies. METHODS: Systematic review of the literature to identify prospective population-based cohort studies with health outcomes in which retention strategies had been evaluated. RESULTS: Twenty-eight studies published up to January 2011 were included. Eleven of which were randomized controlled trials of retention strategies (RCT). Fifty-seven percent of the studies were postal, 21% in-person, 14% telephone and 7% had mixed data collection methods. A total of 45 different retention strategies were used, categorised as 1) incentives, 2) reminder methods, repeat visits or repeat questionnaires, alternative modes of data collection or 3) other methods. Incentives were associated with an increase in retention rates, which improved with greater incentive value. Whether cash was the most effective incentive was not clear from studies that compared cash and gifts of similar value. The average increase in retention rate was 12% for reminder letters, 5% for reminder calls and 12% for repeat questionnaires. Ten studies used alternative data collection methods, mainly as a last resort. All postal studies offered telephone interviews to non-responders, which increased retention rates by 3%. Studies that used face-to-face interviews increased their retention rates by 24% by offering alternative locations and modes of data collection. CONCLUSIONS: Incentives boosted retention rates in prospective cohort studies. Other methods appeared to have a beneficial effect but there was a general lack of a systematic approach to their evaluation.
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