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Healthc Policy. 2011 Dec;7(Spec Issue):47-65.

Differential item functioning in primary healthcare evaluation instruments by french/english version, educational level and urban/rural location.

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  • 1Department of Family Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, QC.


Evaluating the extent to which groups or subgroups of individuals differ with respect to primary healthcare experience depends on first ruling out the possibility of bias.


To determine whether item or subscale performance differs systematically between French/English, high/low education subgroups and urban/rural residency.


A sample of 645 adult users balanced by French/English language (in Quebec and Nova Scotia, respectively), high/low education and urban/rural residency responded to six validated instruments: the Primary Care Assessment Survey (PCAS); the Primary Care Assessment Tool - Short Form (PCAT-S); the Components of Primary Care Index (CPCI); the first version of the EUROPEP (EUROPEP-I); the Interpersonal Processes of Care Survey, version II (IPC-II); and part of the Veterans Affairs National Outpatient Customer Satisfaction Survey (VANOCSS). We normalized subscale scores to a 0-to-10 scale and tested for between-group differences using ANOVA tests. We used a parametric item response model to test for differences between subgroups in item discriminability and item difficulty. We re-examined group differences after removing items with differential item functioning.


Experience of care was assessed more positively in the English-speaking (Nova Scotia) than in the French-speaking (Quebec) respondents. We found differential English/French item functioning in 48% of the 153 items: discriminability in 20% and differential difficulty in 28%. English items were more discriminating generally than the French. Removing problematic items did not change the differences in French/English assessments. Differential item functioning by high/low education status affected 27% of items, with items being generally more discriminating in high-education groups. Between-group comparisons were unchanged. In contrast, only 9% of items showed differential item functioning by geography, affecting principally the accessibility attribute. Removing problematic items reversed a previously non-significant finding, revealing poorer first-contact access in rural than in urban areas.


Differential item functioning does not bias or invalidate French/English comparisons on subscales, but additional development is required to make French and English items equivalent. These instruments are relatively robust by educational status and geography, but results suggest potential differences in the underlying construct in low-education and rural respondents.

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