Images are from previously conducted in-person surveys, which have been paused.
While many research projects across the state are currently in hibernation mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some teams are adjusting their scope to incorporate the coronavirus into their work. Leaders of the Precision Health Initiative Person to Person Health Interview study are among those who are adapting to accommodate new restrictions.
Since fall of 2018, field researchers with the Person to Person Health Interview study have been conducting in-person interviews with people from all over Indiana, working to develop a better understanding of the physical and mental health of Hoosiers with a sample population that is representative of the state as a whole. At this point, nearly 1,700 people have taken part in these surveys, showing considerable progress toward the study goal of interviewing 2,000 people. The people who have already been interviewed agreed to be contacted for future research, so researchers have developed a new protocol to conduct telephone interviews with a study sample related to COVID-19.
Brea Perry, PhD, a sociology professor at Indiana University, has been involved with the Person to Person Health Interview study since it started. When the epidemic first emerged, she noticed people were not talking about the potential secondary effects of factors like social isolation, stress or job loss, which aren’t caused by the virus itself, but instead by efforts to slow the spread of disease, through social or physical distancing.
“Feelings of loneliness and social isolation increase risk for death and disease,” said Perry. “So I was immediately concerned about the mental health consequences and the effects on people’s substance use and other health behaviors. I knew we needed to get in the field as quickly as possible to understand those things.”
Perry explained that they are able to use the research they have already done in the Person to Person Health Interview study as a baseline for the new information they will gather, creating a longitudinal study by comparing their initial interview responses with the way people respond during and after the pandemic. The people being interviewed continue to be compensated for their time through gift cards, which Perry says can be beneficial during this time of economic uncertainty, and the study’s adjustments have also helped support their research team.
“One of the really great things about this effort is that we’re able to re-purpose our field interviewers to be at-home telephone interviewers,” said Perry. “By re-training these field researchers to do telephone interviews in their home, they continue to have an income, so in addition to collecting these unique data, we’re keeping over 20 people employed that would otherwise no longer have an income.”
At this time, the in-person interviews have stopped and the phone call follow-ups have started, incorporating questions about the coronavirus. As the situation continues to change and their research team adapts, project leaders say they’re proud of their staff.
“The members of the field staff are thoroughly invested in this and really enjoy talking to the participants,” said Karen Tucker, who is the director of field operations for the Person to Person Health Interview study. “The feedback has been incredible from the participants. We do a validation survey that not only validates some of the survey responses, but also asks questions about the professionalism of the interviewers and their ability to answer questions. The feedback we have been getting is overwhelmingly positive.”
The Person to Person Health Interview study team originally planned to wrap up data collection by December 2020, but now that they are facing unexpected and unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19, they may extend their work. After already collaborating with the IU Grand Challenge “Responding to the Addictions Crisis” team, they now have plans to collaborate with the IU Grand Challenge “Prepared for Environmental Change” team in the future, giving this study the opportunity to span all three of Indiana University’s Grand Challenges.
“We are successful largely because of the field team, but also because we have people like principal investigator Bernice Pescosolido and Brea Perry and the rest of the people who are working with the Vice Provost for Research,” said Hank Green, PhD, who is the director of research for the Person to Person study. “Dr. Anantha Shekhar, even as he is leaving, has been incredibly supportive. Everybody feels like there is such a great opportunity and this is such an important study. From the top down and the bottom up, we have something really awesome going on.”