DOING A PILOT STUDY: WHY IS IT ESSENTIAL?
Zailinawati Abu Hassan1 FRACGP, Peter Schattner2 MMed, Danielle Mazza2 FRACGP
1Klinik Keluarga, Kuala Lumpur; 2Department of General Practice, Monash University, Australia
Address for correspondence: Dr. Zailinawati Abu Hassan, Klinik Keluarga, No 2-1, Jalan 1A/ 27A, Section 1, Wangsa Maju, 53000, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
A pilot study is one of the essential stages in a research project. This paper aims to describe the importance of and steps involved in executing a pilot study by using an example of a descriptive study in primary care. The process of testing the feasibility of the project proposal, recruitment of subjects, research tool and data analysis was reported. We conclude that a pilot study is necessary and useful in providing the groundwork in a research project.
Key words: pilot study, primary careZailinawati AH, Schattner P, Mazza D. Doing a pilot study: why is it essential? Malaysian Family Physician. 2006:1(2&3):70-73
A pilot study can be defined as a ‘small study to test research protocols, data collection instruments, sample recruitment strategies, and other research techniques in preparation for a larger study.1 A pilot study is one of the important stages in a research project and is conducted to identify potential problem areas and deficiencies in the research instruments and protocol prior to implementation during the full study.2,3 It can also help members of the research team become familiar with the procedures in the protocol, and can help them decide between two competing study methods, such as using interviews rather than a self-administered questionnaire. 4
This article aims to describe the steps involved in undertaking a pilot study by using as an example a proposed survey of the prevalence of insomnia and its impact on daily function amongst Malaysian primary care patients. A few studies conducted in primary care settings have reported that the primary care population has a higher prevalence of insomnia (64-69%) than the general population and those with chronic insomnia had significant impact on daytime functioning and psychological health. 5,6 The pilot study was conducted on patients, aged 18 and above, attending two government health centres and six general practice clinics in Peninsular Malaysia.
The pilot study comprised several components which are summarised in Figure 1.
1. To determine the feasibility of the study protocol
A pilot study was conducted in a general practitioner clinic in Kuala Lumpur from July to September 2005. Pilot studies for all other centres were done in early November 2005. In the first pilot, the provisional study protocol was strictly adhered to, that is, a small-scale version of the complete survey was tested, from patient recruitment to data analysis. The researchers agreed to enrol 20 adult patients aged 18 years and over. Training of the doctors in charge and research assistants in other centres were simultaneously conducted to establish their understanding of the project aims and protocol and to determine the number of research assistants needed for the study.
2. Recruitment of subjects
The doctors invited subjects to participate in the study, with adequate time given for the patients to consider whether they wished to participate. Patients demonstrated their consent by signing the consent form. Then they were handed the first questionnaire that sought information on the presence of insomnia symptoms. If insomnia was present, they were given a second questionnaire by the research assistant that sought information on the impact of insomnia on daytime function and psychological health. The response rate was recorded and the research assistant observed that data collection progressed smoothly.
3. Testing the measurement instrumentThe measurement instrument (a questionnaire) required self-completion by patients with the assistance of several research assistants. An important factor was to ensure that the questionnaire items accurately addressed the research questions. The pilot also tested whether the questionnaire was comprehensible and appropriate, and that the questions were well defined, clearly understood and presented in a consistent manner. Patient information statements and consent forms were also tested for comprehension.