Last month, CLOSER held an online event, The future of data collection in longitudinal population studies – during and post COVID-19 to explore methodological innovations, creativity and adaptability of data collection approaches during the UK’s lockdown. In our latest blog, Professor Rebecca Hardy, CLOSER Director, reflects on the challenges and opportunities of collecting data as a result of COVID-19, and shares her insights on what the future holds for longitudinal research.
In January 2020 (seems like a lifetime ago!), I wrote about the exciting possibilities for longitudinal population studies after CLOSER’s Preparing for the Future conference. The advances in technology and infrastructure meant the future was bright for longitudinal research and the unique resources they offer.
At the time, delegates travelled from across the globe to attend our conference in London. Since then, the world has changed. In these unprecedented and challenging circumstances, longitudinal studies have led the way, responding rapidly to the immediate impact of the pandemic by developing and launching special questionnaires for their participants to help understand the health, social, economic and behavioural impacts of the pandemic at both a national and regional level, within households and across all generations and ages. A unique aspect of these world-class and long standing studies are that they can identify change within individuals as a result of the pandemic because they also have pre-pandemic measures of health and behaviours. Valuable insights from these studies have already emerged, for example, the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on changes in mental health, particularly in younger generations.
Studies that were in the field carrying out their normal schedule of data collection have had to postpone or cancel face-to-face data collection. In order to study the continual changing impact of the pandemic, and the long-term implications, longitudinal studies need to resume usual data collections. Responding to the needs of the longitudinal studies community, CLOSER hosted an online event – the new normal when it comes to having a meeting – on The future of data collection in longitudinal population studies – during and post COVID-19, with 60 people in attendance from over 26 studies and related organisations, including fieldwork agencies. Many of the themes – engagement, collaboration and valuing people, open science and technological innovation – that emerged from discussions in January have even greater resonance today.
Innovations in data collection
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend towards online and remote data collection. Looking to the future, it is likely that studies will retain a greater amount of remote data collection with face-to-face contact reserved for measurements that cannot be carried out in any other way. These new approaches may help studies to reach more participants, and enable more frequent and timely data collections which will allow increasingly detailed investigation of change with age. The COVID-19 Symptom Tracker app has demonstrated what can be achieved with innovative technology. Video conferencing and self-collection of biosamples, including blood, saliva and hair are other approaches which have been trialled. Understanding differences in response rates according to method of data collection, the characteristics of responders, as well as differences in measurement error across modes will be key to ensuring the quality of data gathered. Sharing the results of experiments, and trials of different approaches will be vital. As well as these methodological challenges, key practical concerns are the collection of participant consent, which is more challenging in a remote setting, and administration of sensitive questions.
It seems increasingly clear that a mixed mode approach to data collection will be necessary to maximise response rates and ensure diverse representation of the study population and to avoid digital exclusion. Ongoing work to compare responses in different modes is again vital. Additionally, we need to understand how different socio-demographic groups prefer to respond – strategies will vary by study depending, for example, on participants’ age.
While there are existing guidelines about safe resumption of face-to-face interviews which will be updated as the situation changes, public perception and the views of participants is of paramount importance in order for studies to maintain trust. Work is required to identify when study members will feel it is safe to resume face-to-face interviews in their own homes or to attend clinics, and what precautionary measures will need to be put into place to alleviate any concerns. Studies are already collecting such information from participants, several through running focus groups – findings from which will provide valuable insight for the community. Dedicated participant engagement and communications campaigns, tailored to the different age groups, will be required.
COVID-19 has provided studies with an opportunity to engage with participants in a time of crisis where an immediate and obvious impact of the information collected will be seen. Studies can build on the increased profile of research in general, including that from longitudinal studies to re-engage participants. This momentum can also be used to build a successful new birth cohort which will be vital in tracking the post-COVID-19 generation, born to a generation who themselves will have been greatly affected by the pandemic.
It is clearer now than ever, that longitudinal studies must work together, and indeed they have done so during this crisis. The teams running longitudinal studies and the lifelong participants of these studies have once again shown commitment and dedication to world-class research. CLOSER has taken the initiative to support studies through the creation of the CLOSER COVID-19 Taskforce and the COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub, and bring together in one place information on questionnaires, data and findings, and the keep the community informed of the latest updates via our regular COVID-19 Update Bulletin.
For more information and insights into the future opportunities and challenges of data collection, download the Future of data collection in longitudinal population studies – during and post COVID-19 report below.
Professor Hardy is Director of CLOSER. You can follow her @rebeccajhardy.