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Collecting bio-measures in surveys

Surveys have long collected self-reported assessments of general health, diagnosed health conditions and diseases, and health behaviours and it is known that such self-reports can be prone to error. The inclusion of objective measures affords the assessment of public health with significantly greater accuracy and generates data that cannot be collected through self-reporting. Such measurements include biological samples (e.g. blood, saliva, urine), other physiological health measurements (e.g. blood pressure, lung function), and device-based measurement of physical activity, as well as anthropometric (e.g. height and weight), functional (e.g. grip strength), sensory measurements (e.g. hearing) and cognitive function.

The inclusion of objective measures affords the assessment of public health with significantly greater accuracy and generates data that cannot be collected through self-reporting. Such measurements include biological samples (e.g. blood, saliva, urine), other physiological health measurements (e.g. blood pressure, lung function), and device-based measurement of physical activity, as well as anthropometric (e.g. height and weight), functional (e.g. grip strength), sensory measurements (e.g. hearing) and cognitive function.

Traditionally these measures have been taken by trained staff (e.g. nurses) either in clinics or people’s homes. However, technological advances and the development of minimally invasive techniques of data collection mean that it is now possible to collect bio-samples in-home, either by non-medically trained fieldworkers or by survey participants themselves. Moreover, the increased use of smartphone apps (e.g. activity tracking, food logs) and wearables (e.g. smart watches and fitness trackers) presents opportunities for survey data collection. These are areas that NatCen has and continues to explore and experiment. Recent examples include:

  • The trialling and implementation of blood centrifugation in people’s homes to separate serum and plasma from cells soon after the sample is taken to enable a wider range of analyses that is currently possible when sample have to be sent to a lab.
  • Experimenting with the self-collection of hair and dried blood spots by online survey participants on the Understanding Society Innovation Panel (round 12). The experiment compares response rates and data quality for three randomly assigned conditions: web-first in which self-collects kits are posted to sample members; interviewer-first in which self-collection kits are left with participants at the end of interview; and nurse-first, in which nurses collect samples.
  • Development of protocols for the administration of cognitive function (CF) tests among the general population, as part of survey data collection. Our work (e.g. on the English Longitudinal Study of Aging dementia sub-study) is contributing to wider discussion around different tools for measuring dementia (e.g. smartphone games) and the comparability of test data collected using different modes (e.g. face-to-face vs web).

For more information contact martin.wood@natcen.ac.uk.