CDC proposes smartphone surveys for quicker reads on public health

By Brian Dolan

CDC Mobile AppsThe National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has proposed a project that would use smartphones to collect information on health behaviors, especially with an eye on smoking habits and cessation. The project, which was outlined in the Federal Register this week, is for a feasibility study set to last one year to determine whether mobile-friendly websites targeting smartphone users and text message-based questionnaires for other mobile users would help it collect public health data faster.

"New mobile communications technologies provide a unique opportunity for innovation in public health surveillance," the CDC writes in the Register. "Text messaging and smartphone Web access are immediate, accessible, and anonymous, a combination of features that could make smartphones ideal for the ongoing research, surveillance, and evaluation of risk behaviors and health conditions, as well as targeted dissemination of information."

The groups aim to first send the surveys to US residents aged 18 to 65 nationwide with questions related to smoking habits and alcohol consumption. Following the survey, the smartphone users will be asked to participate via text message in the feasibility study, which includes a survey immediately following the first and then another one a week later. The texts will include links to the survey on a mobile-friendly site.

Some of those who participate in the initial outreach that are non-smartphone users will be asked to participate in another study, the text message pilot, which will conduct the surveys one question at a time via text.

The study aims to evaluate, among other things, the response bias of data collected from the smartphone users on the mobile site to those responses collected via text. The study could help the CDC to make a case for using smartphone surveys in other contexts or for other uses like diary studies to track activities or events, it wrote.

The CDC has recognized the potential for mobile health for many years:

“Mobile communications is absolutely going to revolutionize not just health communications, not just public health, but, I believe, health in general,” the CDC’s former Director of the National Center for Health Marketing Dr. Jay M. Bernhardt said in 2009. “We can put [health-related information] on television, on billboards, or your doctor can tell you… but one of the big problems with mass communications is that it’s hit or miss… [while] mobile technology is always within an arm’s reach.”

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