Scottish Health Survey: 2020 update

An update on the Scottish Health Survey (SHeS) which provides information on the health, and factors relating to health, of adults and children in Scotland.

The Scottish Health Survey (SHeS) provides information on the health, and factors relating to health, of adults and children in Scotland. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, all Scottish Government face-to-face interviewing, including SHeS, has been suspended since the 17 March 2020.

Impact of the suspension of face-to-face fieldwork on the 2020 Scottish Health Survey

As it is was not known whether it would be feasible to resume face-to-face interviewing this year, we introduced a shortened telephone version of SHeS for adults aged 16 and over to allow us to collect information about the populations’ health at this important time of change. This will allow us to provide national estimates of some key behavioural health risk factors and other health harms at this time.

During the decision making process conducting interviews online was considered. However, this is more difficult to set up and would take time to do so and require testing. Our contractors had the capacity to offer telephone interviewing more quickly and this was considered to be the best option.

How the telephone survey differs from usual

The telephone survey is shorter, around 30 minutes, as it does not include all of the questions that were asked in the face-to-face survey which ran until March. The telephone survey ran from the start of August to the end of September, rather than for 12 months, as SHeS surveys usually do.

The telephone survey does not include any interviews with children.

Topics that have been included in the telephone survey and why have they been chosen

The shortened questionnaire included questions about general health, mental wellbeing, dental, loneliness, social capital, eating habits, physical activity, smoking, drinking and diseases of the heart, lungs and chest and self-reported height and weight. It also includes questions to help understand the impact of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions on adults health.

We worked with policy colleagues and our project board members to agree which questions should be included, based on greatest need and what would be feasible to ask by telephone.

In order to potentially allow us to compare the data with previous years SHeS data we tried to ask questions in the same way as we do in the face-to face survey. Sometimes this was not possible, however, and we had to ask alternate questions. For example, due to the volume of questions asked in the usual physical activity module these could not be included. However, it was agreed that it was important to measure adult physical activity during this time so a shortened set of questions were asked (the short form International Physical Activity Questionnaire). Physical measurements were also not possible during a telephone interview and we therefore asked participants to provide self-reported height and weight measurements to allow us to calculate Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine the level of overweight and obesity.

We also included a small number of questions relating to COVID-19 to help assess how the populations health and health behaviours have changed during the pandemic.

Contacting participants

During a usual year where face-to-face interviews are conducted, the sample for SHeS is selected from the Postcode Address File (PAF). Addresses are identified and households are sent an advance letter, letting them know they have been selected to take part in the survey and that an interviewer will be visiting their address. Due to the pandemic however, it was not possible for interviewers to travel to households to ask for a telephone number. Therefore, new households were selected based on PAF and were sent a letter, inviting them to take part and to get in touch to provide a telephone number. 

We needed to select a new sample of addresses for the telephone survey, rather than using the rest of the addresses that had originally been selected in 2020 as response rates for telephone surveys are generally lower than for face-to-face interviews, so we needed a larger sample.

We considered other alternatives to drawing a sample for the telephone interviews, including asking previous SHeS participants who had agreed to be contacted for follow-up research to take park in the survey. However, we wanted  the results of the telephone survey to be as similar to the face-to-face surveys as possible and so chose to draw the sample in the same way. This also helped to reduce bias, as asking previous interviewees would not allow us to have a random sample, and previous interviewees may respond in a different way to those who have never taken part in SHeS before. 

The results of the telephone survey and how will they differ from usual

Telephone interviews were conducted during August and September and the results are due to be published in January 2021. Initial results are expected to be nationally representative and breakdowns by sex and broad age group should be available.

Given the difference in the mode of interviewing, it is not clear at this stage how comparable the data will be to the usual SHeS time series. This is due to potential differences in the characteristics of those who respond to telephone interviews as opposed to face-to-face interviews. We will aim to explain any differences as far as possible when we publish the data. 

Due to the smaller sample size from the telephone survey it is unlikely that we will be able to provide data broken down in as many ways as usual, for example, we will not be able to provide data in as many age breakdowns as usual.

Plan for the future of the health survey

Whilst this approach should provide robust estimates on some key elements of population health at this important time of change, the intention is to reinstate face-to-face interviewing with the full survey content, if and when it is feasible and safe to do so. Face-to-face interviewing is preferable as it allows for a longer questionnaire length, has a much higher response rate and allows for physical measurements to be collected from participants.

Getting in touch

If you have any questions about the 2020 telephone survey, or anything else related to SHeS you can contact us via email:

Users will be kept updated on the future of SHeS through ScotStat communications. You can sign up to receive updates via the ScotStat website.

Latest health survey data

The results of the Scottish Health Survey 2019 were published on the 29 September 2020, showing the latest situation pre COVID-19.

If you are invited to take part in the Scottish Health Survey please say yes and help us to make a difference to the health of people in Scotland.


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