Implications of the Growing Use of Wireless Telephones for Health Care Opinion Polls

Since the early 2000s, people have increasingly relied on wireless telephones. By 2008, an estimated 17 percent of U.S. adults were “wireless-only” and nearly an additional equal percentage had landlines but relied primarily on their cell phones. This significant percentage of people who may not be reachable by landline presents challenges for public opinion pollsters, including those examining public support for health care reform.

This study considered the wireless status of adults surveyed by the New Jersey Health Care Opinion Poll between June 1 and July 9, 2007. Of the 1,104 adults surveyed, 197 adults were reachable by wireless only and 103 were mainly reachable by wireless.

Key Findings:

  • Wireless users, those who rely exclusively or mainly on wireless phones, are estimated to be 22.7 percent of the New Jersey adult population compared with the entire population. This group is disproportionately lower income, younger, nonwhite, not married, not living with other adults, self-employed or not in the labor force, living with at least one noncitizen, interviewed in Spanish, uninsured and have no prescription drugs.
  • Wireless users were significantly more likely to favor health care coverage reforms, including government-sponsored universal coverage, income-related state coverage subsidies and requiring all individuals to have coverage.
  • Overall, support for these policies was demonstrated to be 1.7 to 3.3 percentage points higher when responses from both landline and wireless users were taken into account.
  • After controlling for factors typically used in weight adjustments, as well as population differences, these disparities remain, although the gap is no longer statistically significant for universal coverage or individual coverage mandates.

This analysis was limited and based on data from one state. In addition, including wireless users in surveys raises design issues, such as the portability of wireless lines across state lines, and the increased cost of wireless interviews. (In this survey, wireless respondents were paid $10 to cover the cost of their minutes.) This analysis, however, does find that support for high-profile health reform would have been modestly undercounted if the poll had not sampled wireless users. The authors suggest, given the “dynamic environment of health care reforms and telephone technology,” that this issue be given additional scrutiny.