Background: Traditionally, health care-seeking for child illness is assessed through population-based and nationally representative demographic and health surveys (DHS) that are conducted once every five to seven years and are based on maternal recall. These maternal reports are subject to recall bias. Mobile phones (with the use of GPS technology) have the potential to constantly track movements of phone owners and provide high quality and more accurate data at a population level in low and middle income countries (LMICs) to assess the validity of maternal recall. We provided a group of mothers with smartphones installed with a location-aware application and visited them monthly to administer a survey questionnaire on care-seeking for diarrhoea, fever and cough with fever. This paper assesses for any reactivity to smartphones or repeated study contacts for measuring care-seeking and if this resulted in change in health care provider preference.
Methods: We enrolled 749 mothers from rural areas of Pune district in Maharashtra, India and randomly allocated them to one of three groups - a longitudinal phone group, a longitudinal control group and a cross-sectional control group. We collected baseline information from mothers, including individual and household demographic and socio-economic characteristics and care-seeking preferences for child illness. We followed up both longitudinal groups monthly and each cross-sectional sub-group once over a period of 6 months. At each follow up, we administered questions identical to those in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) questionnaire to determine an episode of diarrhoea, fever or cough within the last 15 days, care seeking for the same, and the type of provider. The data were analysed using the χ2 test or Fisher Exact Test for categorical variables, or with the Kruskall-Wallis non-parametric test for continuous variables (due to the non-normal nature of the data). Multivariable joint models of group and visit time were analysed with logistic regression methods.
Results: All three groups were similar in their socio-demographic characteristics at baseline. We did not observe any significant difference in care seeking for diarrhoea, fever or cough with fever between groups. Also, we did not observe any significant difference in proportion of children seeking care from the private sector.
Conclusions: We did not observe any reactivity in this study due to the presence of the phone (Hawthorne effect) or repeated study visits. The study also shows the potential of using GPS enabled smartphones to enrich DHS surveys in LMICs like India. However, further studies need to be conducted in other population groups before the findings can be generalised.