Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Odd survey

I picked up the telephone last night at home to find one of those electronic surveys on the line. Once I heard the introduction, I stuck with it all the way through just to see what it was about. I´ll describe it, and then people can respond if they know why it was done and whether it is what it says it is.

It started by saying that it was a survey for the state Department of Public Health. There were about two minutes worth of questions, all answerable by pushing a button. It seemed to be about health insurance, and whether I had insurance through my employer or through the new Connector Authority (set up under the new MA health insurance/access law). But then it asked a weird question: Did either of my parents smoke? If so, which, the male and/or the female? It also asked the usual question about my level of education and my age. And then it concluded by saying again that it was a survey for the state DPH.

Of course, I realize that all these surveys, supposedly anonymous, really are not likely to be. After all, they know your phone number, and from that they know your name and address. But that is not what had me wondering.

If it really was the DPH, why are they doing a survey about health insurance? The responsibility for that lies with the Connector Authority, a completely different state agency. And the Connector Authority is already collecting data on how many people in different categories have insurance through their employer or through the plans made available by the Connector. And why ask about smoking in my family history? And, finally, the way the survey announced it was being done for the DPH was just a little off-kilter: It just did not sound like a state agency. Finally, in all the articles about the state budget this year, I never read any coverage about a DPH appropriation for this kind of survey.

So, I wonder if this was really a survey for some company trying to sell insurance or some broker trying to broker insurance sales? As a result of these calls, they could easily segment respondents by age, address (and therefore likely income), family health history -- just what you would want if you were selling health insurance.

Am I too cynical? Maybe someone out there from the DPH will read this and comment. If you are doing the survey, what is it for? If you are not, perhaps you could notify some law enforcement officials that someone is appropriating your name for other purposes.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

It was the cigarette companies looking for new business from susceptible addicts-to-be. (no, just kidding!)

Paul Levy said...

Well, I do have an addictive personality. Just look at this blog. :)

Anonymous said...

The smoking bit does sound really weird, especially because they did not ask about whether you smoked, but about whether your parents smoked. Perhaps the survey is not really about health insurance. If I were to take a guess, I would think that this survey is about the relationship between parents' smoking history and the socioeconomic status of their children. Maybe they're trying to prove that smoking causes more than physical damage? The health insurance questions may be there to relax people into the survey and build up rapport, rather than start off immediately with smoking questions (which may have a certain stigma attached to them).

But then again, I'm not from the DPH, and I just graduated from college, so I'm still fairly naive. I do look forward to knowing what they were up to in this survey...

Nancy Turnbull said...

Paul, I wonder if this was part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey? Here's a link to this very important public health data collection tool:http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=eohhs2terminal&L=4&L0=Home&L1=Consumer&L2=Community+Health+and+Safety&L3=Behavioral+Risk+Factor+Surveillance&sid=Eeohhs2&b=terminalcontent&f=dph_behavioral_risk_c_topical_pubs&csid=Eeohhs2

Also, the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy is the agency that has responsibility for tracking the number of uninsured, and has been doing so since 1998.

jm said...

I did the same survey...not sure why...most I hang up on. I had the same questions. Though it was brief, it asked disjointed questions and I could not tell where they were coming from. I hope someone in the know responds.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, Nancy. Maybe, but it sure didn´t feel like that kind of survey. It really wasn´t comprehensive enough. For example, why would you ask about parents´ smoking habits but then not ask the actual respondent, either about that or any other health related questions. Also, is that behavioral risk factor survey totally electronic? You´d think they would use live questioners, so that subtleties would not be lost.

ajkessel said...

Certainly sounds suspicious. Did you record the caller ID (or does your phone log that for you)? You could try doing a reverse lookup on the number and see if it turns up any information.

Kristin Golden said...

The survey in which you generously participated is in fact a legitimate survey of the Mass. Dept of Public Health. As you pointed out, it’s an automated survey and you respond by using the numbers on your phone pad. What may not be clear is why we are conducting this survey. So some background:

• It is directed by our Tobacco Control program and its goals are to ultimately inform a TV and internet smoking cessation campaign which will run during this fall and winter. Specifically, we hope to:
1. Obtain information from approximately 500 adults who have used the new MassHealth smoking cessation benefit to determine knowledge, use, and effectiveness of the benefit.
2. Obtain information from another 2,000 to 2,500 adults about interests, hobbies, behaviors, and attitudes related to smoking.
• The survey calls are being made from approximately August 16th through the 23rd during the evenings between 5PM and 9PM. No call should be started after 8:55PM.
• Complaints or questions about the survey can be directed to Tom Land at the DPH Tobacco Control Program at (617) 624-5902.

This is good feedback for us because telephone surveys are a tough business and its hard to do them perfectly. We learn from each one that we do. Legitimacy is the number one concern from the public, followed by privacy and confidentiality. While it’s true we have your phone number, the phone number is never associated with the results of the survey, so no one could go back and link your information to your number.

Hope this helps and we'd be more than happy to answer any follow up questions for the many of you out there getting these calls.

Kristin Golden
kristin.golden@state.ma.us
Director, Policy & Planning
MDPH

Paul Levy said...

Thanks so much, Kristin, for clearing this up.

Bob Yokl said...

Paul that makes your blog post that much more interesting that the DPH is going that far to have a survey performed.

Keep up the good work Paul, glad you take the time for this blog.

Paul Levy said...

Kristin wrote me again to say the survey is going through Aug 30 and not Aug 23.

Anonymous said...

Wow- this is blogging at its finest! No wonder it's addictive.

Ask questions about the world around you and get answers!

Will you be posting their results Paul?

Paul Levy said...

If they give them to me . . .

margalit said...

I had the same survey the other day but they said they were from Mass Health. They identified themselves as from Mass Health several times, saying the call would be recorded. Asked me about cigarettes too, which I thought off since my kids are covered by Mass Health, but I am not. Strange.

Rob said...

"Am I too cynical?"

No. Despite any protestations to the contrary, matching information like that up with any demographic (your phone number? That's not exactly anonymous) WILL result in that information being used in a way not originally intended. It's just too handy and too easy.

Maybe not in this case. But in another. And another. And another.

The thing is that the information is harmless. It's what someone, somewhere, who is not accountable to us, judges us to be based on it. That's where privacy must matter.

When personal information collects, someone WILL use it to judge us, and this removes our fundamental right to face an accuser.

I don't really care who looks at my health information. I DO care what judgements and penalties will result.