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What's too much? How to design a streamlined intake form

August 17, 2021

When improving access to a network of services like community mental health and addictions programs, you may be inclined to design a single intake form for all services. Creating “one form to rule them all” will require input from all of your partner organizations and can result in a lengthy form. Each organization might focus on different demographics, so a single form will lead to over-collection or under-collection of data, depending on the service. Further, asking too much information up front can become a barrier to access for many people.  In many cases, this information is not required or necessary for a client to receive a particular service. 

Instead of trying to control a single intake form across the network, use this guide to help design inclusive and streamlined online forms for each service type.

1. Ask the question at the right time.
  • How important is it that I know this information BEFORE the first intake appointment?
  • Will the answer to this question help me provide better care or service navigation?
  • Is this a sensitive question that might be better asked in person, once rapport is established? 
2. Be succinct
  • Gather only the minimum required information for your intake team to conduct an accurate first assessment. A long, over-complicated form can cause stress or anxiety. If you need to collect cultural and demographic information for funding or reporting requirements, you can do so with a survey after the client has been provided service. 
  • Format questions so they can be answered in the easiest way possible. 
    ・ Use multi-select checkboxes if you are gathering information about related symptoms, risk issues or substances used. 
    ・ Use dropdowns when only one answer should be selected (i.e., a preference of phone, video or in-person appointments)
    ・ Use radio boxes for binary questions (yes/no, true/false)
3. Avoid large free-form text boxes
  • A free-form question can lead to irrelevant information and the client may not provide you with what you are actually looking for. Normally, one open text box at the end of the form is enough for the client to share what they feel is important.
4. Consider relevancy
  • More is not always better when it comes to gathering information.  Irrelevant information can distract from seeing what is important. Do you really need to ask the client’s gender or sex?  It may be more relevant to ask their pronouns so you know how to address them in conversation.  Do you actually require the client's health card number to deliver service?  Ensure you know the purpose behind collecting each item of information, before you ask for it.
5. Avoid multiple consents
  • There is a difference between consent to share information and consent to treatment. Make sure you are only asking the client consent to share information with your organization, as the consent to treat should come after the intake appointment, when a treatment plan has been decided on.

If your network’s primary goal is to reduce barriers to access, design an intake form that is easy to understand and easy to fill out. Overcollection of information too early in the process will lead to higher drop-off rates and your intake team will waste time sifting through for important data. Take the time to ask the very sensitive or complicated questions in person, after rapport is established, to ensure that every person has equal opportunities to access services.

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