Collecting health information - how our participants are helping

Our participants are involved in the development of new ways to gather health data through an innovative pilot project that aims to find out whether people can collect their own blood and hair samples. 

Understanding Society is well known by researchers and policy makers across the world as a fantastic source of information about life in the UK, but behind the scenes the team running the Study are also working on ways to improve how surveys collect information. This year we’ve been piloting a new project with a section of our Understanding Society participants to see if we can improve how health information, particularly hair and blood samples, are collected. 

Samples of hair and blood are really important for research, as they help give us accurate measurements for people’s health and the opportunity to see what’s happening ‘under the skin’ through measuring hormone levels, cholesterol, iron levels and other health markers. When combined with a survey like Understanding Society, this health information helps us to understand how people’s health, social and economic life interact. Research using health data is already telling us about how long-term stress affects the body, whether flexible working is really beneficial for us and how our housing might impact on our health

Collecting samples from Understanding Society participants has traditionally been done by a nurse in a visit to the participant’s home. This is time consuming for both the participant and the Understanding Society team. For blood samples in particular, some people find it quite invasive, as the blood is collected in the same way a doctor or nurse take a traditional sample for a blood test. New techniques for collecting blood samples mean that it’s now possible to get good research results from blood spot collection – where the person uses a small lancet to prick their finger and put a few small drops of blood on a collection card.  This is much less invasive and quicker for the participant to do. But, would our participants be willing to give blood samples in this way?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’! Collection kits have been sent to participants across the UK and we’re having hundreds of blood spot cards and hair samples returned to us. What’s even more impressive is that an initial look at the samples suggests they are as good quality as blood spots and hair samples collected by a nurse. Even where participants haven’t felt able to do the collection themselves, they’ve given us really useful feedback on why this is, allowing us to improve collection processes in the future.

Health Research Manager Dr Melissa Smart explains the next stage of development, “Now we know that our participants are happy to use the collection kits, and they have sent back a large number of samples, we’re looking in more detail at the blood spots and hair that have been returned to see whether the health information we extract from them is as good quality as in samples collected by nurses. Having this sort of information from our participants is incredibly useful for medical and social research. Being able to collect high quality health samples directly from participants would be a real step forward for Understanding Society. Ultimately, it helps us understand the causes of ill health and treat diseases. ”

Once all the results are in our health team will report on this innovative study. If you’d like to know about the health information collected by Understanding Society this animation explains more: