Health Surveys Can Reveal Supplementary Health Information, Research Shows

In face-to-face-interviews on personal health, respondents often self-report measures of their physical and mental capabilities by answering a series of questions. In some cases, interviewers conducting the surveys also rate respondents’ health by answering questions like, “Would you say the respondent’s health in general is excellent, very good, fair, or poor?”

These questions, known as interviewers’ ratings of respondents’ health (IRH), may provide information that supplements other measures of health—the topic of a new paper on which affiliate Nora Cate Schaeffer (sociology) is co-author (with Dana Garbarski of Loyola, first author, and Jennifer Dykema of the (University of Wisconsin Survey Center). The paper was published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences. Using data from the 2011 in-person interviews of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, the research team examined the relationships among characteristics of respondents and interviewers, IRH, and mortality.

In the study, researchers identified three main factors that influence IRH. The first factor, respondents’ characteristics (health, demographics, appearance, living conditions, and physical, psychological, and social functioning) is provided by their answers to survey questions, interviewers’ observations of respondents, or both. The second factor, interviewers’ evaluations of respondents, reflects how interviewers perceive what they learn and observe about respondents. Perceptions are likely influenced by the third factor of IRH: interviewers’ characteristics, including their own sociodemographic background and interviewing experience.

After determining that IRH is associated with respondents and interviewers’ characteristics and interviewers’ evaluations of respondents, researchers found that IRH is an independent predictor of mortality. With these results, the authors propose that researchers incorporate IRH in surveys of older adults as a cost-effective, easily implemented, and supplementary measure of health.