County plans survey on teens

Data will help guide funding allocations

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How well do teenagers eat? How much exercise to they get? Sleep? Television?

More personally, have they been bullied? Are they sexually active? How often do they use tobacco, alcohol or drugs?

The Allegheny County Health Department will team with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for a comprehensive survey to answer those questions and more. The plan is to use information gathered in 1,600 interviews over the next year to guide how the Health Department allocates program funds, said Karen Hacker, the department's director.

Dr. Hacker, who came to the county in September from the Boston area, said she was surprised to learn the county didn't have that kind of basic information. Many areas of the country participate in the national Youth Risk Behavior Study conducted regularly through school districts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that doesn't happen in Allegheny County.

"This survey will help us know where we should put more emphasis, where the needs are," Dr. Hacker said.

The Healthy Allegheny Teen Survey will ask teens 14 to 19 years old about 160 questions, half with a live interviewer and the other, more sensitive half with an electronic recorder. Teens who complete the survey will get a $20 gift card.

Once the information is gathered, which is expected to take about a year, it will be analyzed for about three months before the findings are presented, said Todd Bear, director of the Office of Health Survey Research at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

"What we will be able to say is in grades 9 and 10, this is the percentage of kids who smoke," he said.

The information also will allow comparisons among subgroups such as boys and girls or blacks and whites, Mr. Bear said. It would be hard to break the information down by other population groups because they make up such a small proportion of the county's population.

The teen survey is an extension of similar studies done on adults in the county, the most recent one in 2009.

"We feel like this will fill a gap we have in the information available," he said. Dr. Hacker said reviews of teen surveys in other jurisdictions have shown participants willingly provide accurate data if they are sure it is confidential.

The teens will be selected randomly from a list of 60,000 land lines and cell phones. Those conducting the survey will ask whether anyone in the household is 14 to 19 and if they want to participate in the survey.

Once the electronic portion of the survey is completed, the participant will be transferred to another system to provide a name and address for the gift card so the survey information and name of the participant can't be linked.

The survey will cost $225,000 and will be paid for through donations from FISA Foundation, Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation, Grable Foundation and Heinz Endowments.

The survey is voluntary. Parents who want to have their phone number left off the list can call 412-624-3126. Anyone who wants to verify they have received a legitimate call from the survey can call 412-687-2243.

Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470.

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