Ingrid Oakley-Girvan: Mobile apps could be a boon to public health surveys

Smartphone millennials
Ingrid Oakley-Girvan

The potential of a mobile app to replace the traditional public health survey is the focus of a multidisciplinary research effort led by the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and Castleton University in Vermont. The collaborative effort will develop and pilot test an app for an interactive behavioral health-related survey, and represents yet another example of how mobile tools are being integrated into healthcare.

The effort is aimed at creating a survey approach that eliminates the challenges of phone and in-person surveys and the related increasing costs researchers face in collecting data. The pilot will involve two groups of students, one provided a gamified app and the second a standard app, both available on Android and iOS devices.

The project is scheduled to be completed by February 2017. FierceMobileHealthcare reached out to Ingrid Oakley-Girvan, who serves on the CPIC team and as a Stanford University School of Medicine faculty member, for further insight on the research effort, which involves epidemiologists, public health and big data experts, communication and survey specialists, app developers and a HIPAA-compliant platform provider. Oakey-Girvan believes a mobile approach could prove instrumental in gaining better survey representation and increased participation in clinical trials.

FierceMobileHealthcare: How did the collaboration come about?

Ingrid Oakley-Girvan: Castleton University researchers approached data and survey company Yasamin Miller Group (YMG) about a specific government request for proposals (RFP). YMG, with its breadth of contacts in industry and academia, realized this project required a multi-disciplinary approach and then reached out to trusted partners who had the expertise necessary to meet the needs of the RFP and pull together a creative solution. YMG contacted me and I approached a number of experts at Stanford University School of Medicine to further complement the team. 

FMH: Are there any mobile app survey options available at this point? What triggered investigating this approach?

Oakley-Girvan: Effectiveness, in this instance defined as high response rates with representation across the U.S. population, is a metric we strive to reach when conducting larger research studies. Thus, while there are some mobile app surveys in use in smaller populations, we are interested in evaluating their use in large public health surveys.

FMH: What are the benefits a mobile app would provide? What about the possible pitfalls? And what specific challenges come into play using an app with public health surveys?

Oakley-Girvan: Response rates by phone have now declined to single digits, often rendering the results questionable, and mailed surveys frequently go unanswered. A mobile app offers several benefits, including broader access to the general population given the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices and smartphones. 

Mobile apps also shift the survey completion paradigm in an entirely new way--to one that allows participants to respond at their convenience and often anonymously. Mobile apps can be used to quickly survey populations for real-time data that can then be used for rapid response in urgent situations such as disease outbreaks or situations such as hurricanes.

FMH: Do you envision the mobile survey app approach replacing traditional public health surveys, or will it be another strong communication option?

Oakley-Girvan: Mobile apps may not be appropriate in all circumstances but they will likely be a critical tool and strong communication option for research and public health.

FMH: One of the groups will be using a gamified app. How does that compare to the app the other group will be using?

Oakley-Girvan: Our gamified version incorporates a badge and point system to reward the participants’ engagement with the app. The non-gamified version does not include a reward structure but rather mimics a typical survey; just conducted through a mobile app.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.