Editorial: In the name of health, Washingtonians, answer your phones

In a world of big tech and data breaches, we don’t typically advise people to give out personal information over the phone, but we'll make an exception when it comes to the state’s health and well-being.

Since 1987, Washington’s Department of Health has conducted a 25-minute phone survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or BRFSS. There’s only one problem: Most people don’t answer DOH’s call.

In 2017 the state randomly called 225,000 adults over the age of 18 to ask about everything from mental health to dental health, seatbelt use to fire alarms. It even inquired about gambling habits. The effort yielded only about 13,000 complete responses.

State epidemiologist Mark Serafin reports the responses are shrinking, but are still enough to give the state a statistical snapshot. But like any good scientist/statistician, Serafin would like more information. And that begins with reassuring the public that information obtained by BRFSS is confidential. Data, he says, is immediately separated from names and phone numbers.

Part of the problem may also lie with caller ID. When people are randomly selected for BRFSS, they don’t see Washington Department of Health on their phone screen. They see a 206 area code and ICF International, the survey company working on the state’s behalf.

DOH might want to consider an online survey, but until then, we encourage Washingtonians to pick up the phone and start talking. The core questions are provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and relate to high-priority health issues. It’s the largest health survey system in the world.

And because Washington adds its own survey module, DOH officials can compare our health status with other states. They can identify what communities and occupations are associated with higher-risk behavior such as tobacco, drug and alcohol use.

But Serafin says the strongest argument for taking the BRFSS comes from the state’s ability to cross-reference information. For example, recent data revealed that 5 percent of respondents 65 and older reported both cognitive decline and access to unlocked and loaded guns.

The Alliance for Gun Responsibility can use this information to shore up support for Initiative 1639, a measure on the November ballot that would strengthen firearm storage laws.

BRFSS also spotlights racial and economic disparities. Survey data shows, for example, that black adults have a significantly higher rate of diabetes compared with non-Hispanic whites.

Why is this important? Because an accurate picture precipitates change.

BRFSS reveals a disproportionately high rate of smoking in certain populations. One-in-four adults with an annual income of less than $35,000 smoke cigarettes, compared to one-in-12 who smoke in households making $75,000 or more. Consequently, poorer people have more exposure to secondhand smoke and fewer resources to quit smoking.

All this information is invaluable to health care professionals, researchers, policy makers and community leaders who want to improve our health and quality of life.

But first, Washingtonians need to answer their phones.