Growing Cell Phone Use Makes it Harder to Get Good Health Data

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American households are increasingly ditching their landlines in favor of cell phones, and that’s creating public health problems. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 17.5 percent of Americans own only cell phones, while another 13 percent rely on cell phones for most calls. TheWashington Post reports that this shift complicates health research, making it harder to collect data that reflects the entire U.S. population, and, consequently, to accurately define public health problems and craft appropriate responses.

There are several reasons for this difficulty. For one thing, it takes more time to reach cell phone users, since federal law forbids researchers from using automatic dialers, the method used to connect with most landlines. People on cells are also less willing to cooperate with polls, perhaps because they have to pay for every minute they spend talking. In the end, researchers get fewer completed surveys from cell phone users. According to Scott Keeter at the Pew Research group, they finish one survey for every 9 cell calls, as opposed to one for every 5 calls to landlines.

Researchers are worried about this gap in information, because certain demographics are overrepresented in cell phone-only households–according to a Q&A chat accompanying the article, these include renters, young people, and Latinos. Researchers are testing different strategies to gather information from these groups, including reimbursing people for minutes spent answering questions and supplementing surveys with mail-in components. Some software developers are also addressing the problem, developing data-gathering tools meant specifically for wireless phones. One good example is EpiSurveyor, which was piloted late last year.

Image courtesy of Eric__I_E, licensed under Creative Commons.

(Thanks, American Journal of Bioethics.)

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