Study: How to Conduct a Contact Tracing Call

November 9, 2020
Frank Diamond

Investigators with Penn State Health note that since the institution’s first call with a COVID-19 patient on March 27, Penn State Health has completed 87% of contact tracing calls with patients who’d been infected by the coronavirus.

Reaching out to anyone about any health problem over the phone takes a subtle touch on the part of infection preventionists and other healthcare professionals. That’s especially true if the reaching out is a function of contact tracing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). A pre-print study in the American Journal of Infection Control argues that one of the traditional scripts for contact tracing, provided by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), might not be enough to enhance contact tracing, and have come up with their own script.

Investigators with Penn State Health note that since the institution’s first call with a COVID-19 patient on March 27, Penn State Health has completed 87% of contact tracing calls with patients who’d been infected by the coronavirus.

“In the past few weeks, as the performance of other programs has been reported, it appears that our contact tracers are unusually successful,” the study states. “In neighboring Lancaster County, with demographics similar to ours, calls with only 48% of cases are being completed.”

They go on to state how their contact tracing rate is better than Massachusetts, which is known to have one of the country’s most established tracing programs, but where only 60% of attempted calls are answered. In New York City, only 42% of those contacted told who’d they been in close contact with. For Penn State Health, the rate for this is 62.5%.

“While we recognize there may be other factors that can impact these rates, such as racial, ethic, and other demographic differences in the callers and call recipients, we believe that part of performance difference stems from the scripting tactics we have used,” the study states. “We based our calling script on evidence from randomized trials in the fields of behavioral economics and persuasion science.”

The study features a side-by-side comparison of the two scripts: the one used by Penn State Health and the ASTHO script. In their script, investigators highlight how their approach differs and why that may make for better contact tracing. Some of those notes include:

  • Designed to incorporate the tactics of conveying expertise and trustworthiness of a healthcare provider and university, on the one hand, which increases a communicator’s influence and enhancing feelings of unity of place, on the other, which increases survey participation.
  • Designed to incorporate the tactic of enhancing rapport, which increases compliance with medical professionals’ requests.
  • Designed to incorporate the tactic of reducing privacy concerns which, if not addressed, appear to undercut compliance with contact tracing.
  • Designed to incorporate the tactic of reciprocity, in which people feel obligated to help those who seek to help them and their close others.
  • Designed to incorporate the tactic of enhancing source credibility, in which a communicator points to a drawback before advancing to a request.