Smartphones: A New Tool for Population Heath Surveys

Jun 14, 2011, 9:00 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Could the rocketing use of smartphones be a boon for population health surveys? Trent Buskirk, an associate professor of biostatistics at the St. Louis University School of Public Health, thinks so.

At a panel about Innovations in Population Health Surveys at AcademyHealth's Annual Research Meeting, Buskirk noted that the opportunity to use smartphones for surveys is increasing now that 85 percent of U.S. households have a cell phone--and 37% of those cell phones are smartphones.

Added to the opportunity is the increasing use of health care apps that many consumers are now using which creates a data collection opportunity. Survey researchers could ask app developers for data, such as how many people downloaded a smoking cessation app.

Buskirk says the prevalence of apps also give researchers a model for a survey tool for smartphones, since so many users have now become accustomed to app functionality.

Buskirk and colleagues conducted a small study that invited computer users already members of an online panel that responded to surveys to reply to a new survey either by computer or iPhone. Buskirk says important findings included:

  • Fewer incomplete questions, which is a common problem with most surveys
  • Loading time for the first screen on the iPhone takes about a half a second longer than on the computer, which is important to know “because if respondents get aggravated they might drop the survey all together,” says Buskirk
  • Surveys may need programming more sophisticated than just questions to support app-like experiences
  • Smartphone surveys may be especially useful for hard-to-reach or specialized populations. For example, 61 percent of physicians, Buskirk says, now use an iPhone.
  • Smartphone surveys will likely need a “save” option, rather than just a submit button. Buskirk says one responder was in a helicopter while responding and some participants took four days to complete the survey because they work on multiple things simultaneously. “You’ll lose responders if they move to another task and then have to start the survey from scratch” he noted
  • Developers will need a new way to track how long people spend on each survey, since a smartphone user population may not complete the questionnaire in one sitting
  • Smartphones can also be used by survey professionals in the field, perhaps by downloading data from tracking devices participants use such as how many steps they take or how often they monitored glucose levels.

Weigh In: How long would you spend on a smartphone answering a survey?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.