CATI – Combat COVID Isolation and Engage Health Research Participants

Vibrent Health Director Rachele Peterson

Vibrent Health Director Rachele Peterson talks about computer-assisted telephone interviews.

While technology has long enabled individuals to participate in health research studies remotely, it hasn’t been common practice until the emergence of the pandemic.

With the sudden arrival of COVID-19, the need to participate in research from the safety of home quickly become a critical priority, as both participants and research staff found themselves unexpectedly home-bound. After the initial experience of those jarring first few months, “quarantine” and “lockdown” became a reality for us all. For participants whose daily lives were interrupted by the pandemic, a call from a study team member and the warmth of a friendly voice emerged as a surprising tool to combat isolation and make a positive difference in participants’ lives and enable researchers to continue their important research work.

Using CATI to improve health research participant engagement

These days, we’re seeing increased use of computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI) as one of the best ways to support an engaging research experience. This tool—a structured system of remote data collection by telephone—has been used in survey methodology for decades. Today, researchers are using it to support participants at a distance – even if they do not have Internet connection, computer or smartphone.

For example, the NIH All of Us Research Program leverages CATI to improve participant engagement during COVID-19 by observing how researchers using the program’s digital surveys have successfully incorporated CATI to pivot to virtual engagement.

CATI in health research supports both “self-service” and “supported service” engagement models

Often, technology is used by researchers to support self-driven participant experiences for participants who prefer to go through the research process independently and have easy technology access. CATI can be tailored according to participants’ needs and avoids a one-size-fits-all approach. Research staff can easily use CATI technology in a digital research platform that accommodates telephonic communications to conduct phone interviews with participants who want to hear a friendly voice, or who need assistance completing study activities like surveys from the safety of their home, or who do not have reliable access to the internet on a computer or smartphone.

This dual “self-service” and “supported service” model with the integration of CATI opens the doors to inclusion in research. That’s important because, as most researchers already know, there is a significant portion of underrepresented communities who are locked out of the research process because they lack access to digital tools. When you look for a digital health solution, seek a provider that supports responsible and inclusive research experiences by integrating CATI into their platform.

CATI does not replace the human touch.

Technology in health research can be used to create personal, user-friendly experiences to those who need it most. And, by addressing the digital divide, solving for our reduced ability to travel during COVID, and supporting data completeness across diverse groups of participants, technologies like CATI are breaking new ground in participant engagement. As COVID continues to impact our daily lives, a caring voice over the phone can make all the difference to our study participants.