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Kathleen Call 300

Kathleen Call is a professor in the U of M's School of Public Health.

Dramatic increase in cell phone-only households has had significant impact on healthcare research

July 20, 2011

With healthcare reform set to roll out in the next several years, having scientifically sound data for health policy is more important than ever. But the dramatic increase in wireless households—those in which individuals have only a cell phone, not a land-line phone—is posing a challenge for researchers who use phone surveys to get an accurate picture of healthcare coverage at the state and national level.

To address the problem, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s State Health Access Data Assistance Center (SHADAC) have been using the National Health Interview survey (as well as other surveys) to help arrive at estimates of coverage levels among the various states. A SHADAC member who can comment on the impact of wireless only households on health policy is:

Kathleen Thiede Call, associate professor, School of Public Health

Call says the dramatic increase in wireless only households has had a significant impact on survey research, because this growing population is not always accounted for in estimates of health insurance coverage and access to healthcare.

“People that are in cell phone-only households are really different. They differ in [terms of] age, ethnicity and home ownership—so they tend to be more mobile,” says Call. “They are young, healthy adults, [and] typically have worse access to [health] services and more difficulty getting health insurance.”

See a video interview with Call discussing the impact of wireless households on health care policy at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaiFgphacfg.

Call says that coverage rates vary dramatically among states. Arkansas and Mississippi rank at the high end of wireless only households, with 35 percent of households in 2010. States along the East Coast, such as Rhode Island, New Jersey and Connecticut, are on the low end, with about 5 to 6 percent of households having only wireless in 2010.

Monitoring health reform—who’s gaining coverage, who’s losing coverage—will be critical in the coming years. Call says accounting for wireless only households will be key to evaluating reform efforts.

“We need to be tuned into these wireless only households, households with no service, and households that have both [landlines and cell phones],” says Call. How do we account for them so we know that health reform is working—and who is it working for?”

To interview Call, contact Nick Hanson at (612) 624-2449 or hans2853@umn.edu; or Jeff Falk at (612) 626-1720 or jfalk@umn.edu.

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Tags: Academic Health Center

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Expert Perspectives: Cell phones and health care coverage