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Texting for Health

Public health officials are using text messaging to educate and motivate patients and consumers.

FALL 2009
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For many of us, cell phones are appendages. Taking advantage of this near-obsessive connectivity, public health officials around the world are using text messaging to educate and motivate patients and consumers. These programs demonstrate the power of a few well-placed, abbreviated words.


Arizona’s Mohave Department of Public Health began offering STOMP (Stop Smoking Over Mobile Phone) the nation’s first text-based smoking cessation program, to teens in 2008. For 26 weeks, participants receive texts with tips tailored to their demographics. A study showed that 28% of STOMP users had quit after six weeks, vs. 13% in the control group.


In the first phase of Project Masiluleke (Zulu for hope and warm counsel), “social innovation” organization PopTech sent approximately 1 million HIV/AIDS messages each day for one year to the South African public, directing them to call centers. Within three weeks, calls to the Johannesburg National AIDS Helpline had tripled. Phase II will use messages to increase compliance with antiretroviral therapy.


Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City used text messaging to increase medication compliance among 41 pediatric liver transplant recipients. Teens (or their parents) were texted when it was time to take antirejection medication. After six months, only two teens remained at high risk for rejection, compared with 12 at the project’s start.


Counterfeit drugs kill more than 700,000 people each year, most in the developing world. Piloted in Ghana, a drug-authentication program called MPedigree enables consumers to text a code on a medicine container to an electronic registry to verify the drug’s legitimacy, brand name and expiration date.


SexINFO, a public health text-messaging service launched in 2006 by nonprofit ISIS Inc., targets San Francisco Bay area teens. Users text “sexinfo” to the service, then select from a menu of choices to learn about sexually transmitted diseases, birth control or the location of free clinics. More than 4,000 people used the service in 2008. The program has since launched a statewide service allowing users to text “hookup” for weekly sex info. (HookUp Tip #15: “Even w/out pain or symptoms, STDs can do damage inside u. Get tested.”)


In the state of Georgia, diabetics text their glucose readings and use cell phone cameras to snap photos of their meals to send to diabetes educators. They can also text questions. One CDC and Georgia Tech–funded study found that participants learned to manage their disease more quickly than those in a traditional diabetes education program.

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