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Texting to Better Health

This post is guest authored by freelance journalist Fiona Hughes.

Can text messaging improve patient health outcomes? Judging from presentations made during a seminar at the sixth annual mHealth Summit held in Washington D.C. Dec 7-10, the answer to that question is a resounding YES.

In a seminar entitled “Evidence, Challenges and Successes in Text Messaging Programs,” three speakers discussed their unique experiences using text messaging (SMS) programs to improve health outcomes for patients. Key to any success, all three noted, was patient engagement to empower patients to cultivate and sustain positive lifestyle behaviors.

Wellpepper's Secure Text Messaging

Wellpepper’s Secure Text Messaging

But why use SMS? The answer is obvious. Almost everyone owns a cell phone. In fact, 90% of American adults own a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Center.

Seminar speaker Vanessa Mason, a strategist with ZeroDivide.Org, provided even more compelling statistics: 81% of cell phone users text, 97% of texts are read, 78% of cell phone owners make less than $30,000 a year. These stats may explain why SMS is rapidly becoming a means to reach out to diverse populations because of the low cost and ubiquitous nature of mobile devices. Other studies have shown that for low income populations a mobile device is their only way of accessing the Internet.

Dr. Stephen Agboola, a research fellow at the Boston-based Centre for Connected Health, presented his findings from a 2-arm randomized controlled trial called Text to Move, which sent personalized text messages to improve physical activity (PA) among patients with Type 2 diabetes. According to Dr. Agboola, PA is one of the more difficult behaviours to change among Type 2 diabetics.

Patients in the intervention group were sent 60 messages a month for six months (one in the morning, one in the evening) of practical educational and motivational information tailored to a 4th grade level (e.g. sample morning message: As of 08:27 AM, you were active for 45 minutes – 75% of your goal. Reply HELP for help…)

Dr. Agboola, who has expanded the trial to four more health centres associated with Massachusetts General Hospital, noted that the low cost and design of the messages makes it possible for the program to be easily scaled across a diverse patient population regardless of age, educational, economic or ethnic background and sustained over a longer period of time.

Results of the Text to Move included 3-pound weight loss in the intervention group, a significant decrease in HbA1c, an increase in average daily step counts and 78% program engagement.

Dr. Agboola’s conclusion: “Text messaging can be used to improve patient outcomes.”

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In his brief presentation, business and research analyst Troy Keyser of the Centre for Connected Health compared various techniques in participant recruitment in texting health intervention in a clinical setting.

He cited the example of Quit Now, a free service to help people live tobacco free. Techniques used to get patients to enroll included postcards left in the clinic (1.6% conversion rate); An opt-in text (200 messages were sent, 7 patients enrolled for a 3.5% conversion rate); and finally a provider-led approach (126 patients were asked to enroll by their physician, 126 enrolled for a 100% conversion rate).

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ZeroDivide’s Vanessa Mason expanded further on enrollment methods and offered a how-to-guide for text messaging (recruitment, operational needs, technological specifications, content development, evaluation). Some key points included:

  • Assess target audience
  • Involve patients in message content
  • Segment messaging as necessary
  • Evaluate patient expectations, needs and skills
  • Assess self-management goals
  • Encourage peer support for participation
  • Reinforce positive behaviours to support health goals
  • Mason’s full report “Texting for Better Care Project” can be viewed at zerodivide.org. It examines text messaging interventions for health care delivery in the safety net for underserved populations.

Mason shared the story of ZeroDivide’s work with church congregations in Atlanta, Cleveland, Columbus and Dallas that are using SMS to improve health outcomes for Africa-American women. According to the Pew Research Centre, Latinos, African-Americans and people between the ages of 18 and 49 are more likely than other demographic groups to access health information on their mobile devices.

The two grassroots programs — Mobilize-4-Fitness and Text4Wellness — use culturally appropriate SMS to provide information about physical activity, nutrition and wellness. The initiatives specifically target female congregants between the ages of 19 and 55.

“Given that many African-American women see being part of a faith-based community as a bedrock to their social lives, this is a great opportunity to leverage the assets that are already in their church, including fellow congregants and the health ministers, to achieve better health outcomes,” Mason writes.

Final results of these programs will be published in May 2015.

One issue, important to all health organizations that want to use texting with patients for clinical purposes, PHI protection, was skirted by the panelists. One said that no PHI was sent back and forth, however, this is doubtful if a patient is sending their outcomes. SMS holds great promise but information must be sent in a secure manner.

As the digital revolution shakes up the healthcare system and changes the way medicine is practiced, it’s not hard to imagine SMS becoming a standard tool for physicians to engage patients to help them manage their care. But it’s important to be mindful of the digital divide affecting underserved communities, especially in the U.S. healthcare system, which — as ZeroDivide noted in a recent report on eHealth in underserved populations — is known for its “persistent disparities in quality of and access to care.”

 

Posted in: Behavior Change, Healthcare Disruption, Healthcare motivation, Healthcare Technology, Healthcare transformation, M-health

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