When I think of texting, I think of LOL, TTYL, teenagers, and my friend who always used to text me in grad school and when I called her right back, she wouldn’t answer her phone (never understood it). I don’t think of public health. But I should – and we all should. With 91% of Americans owning a cell phone and 81% of them sending or receiving text messages (data from Pew Research), text messaging is clearly a critical way to communicate with a large and varied audience. The reach to the rest of the world is similar – with an estimated 85% of the world reachable by mobile phone (see Global Observatory for eHealth series). And Heather Mansfield tells us that American adults now use text messaging more than talking on their cell phones! Other fun facts from MobileCommons: 51% of women prefer to receive a text message over a card on a special occasion (really?) and the peak time for text messaging is between 10:30 and 11:30 at night.
So what are some ways that public health professionals and organizations take advantage of text messaging to improve health? I have listed three examples to illustrate how powerful and varied texting can be in public health.
1. Sproxil. I first read about Sproxil during our Innovations course and thought it was a fantastic application. Counterfeit drugs kill hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and Sproxil allows patients to text a code (from the drug bottle) to Sproxil and then be told whether the drug is real or not. Talk about saving lives through texting.
2. Text4baby. This free information service texts mothers-to-be and new mothers important information about pregnancy and newborn health. An evaluation of the service found that “nearly three times more likely to believe that they were prepared to be new mothers compared to those in the no exposure control group.” Clearly, this service is a great way to reach women who might otherwise not receive all the medical care and advice they need. Even better, this service is free thanks to support from Johnson & Johnson and other partners.
3. Text2Quit. According to an article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, this smoking cessation text message counseling service can at least double the chance that someone will quit smoking when compared to using other “self-help” materials.
What I hope the above examples have illustrated is that there are many ways that text messaging can improve public health. Text messages can also be used for fundraising purposes and as a “call to action” (see chapter 10 in Social Media for Social Good for a great overview). There are companies such as EZ Texting and mGive that can help an organization set up a text messaging campaign or for the tech-savvy groups there is the free service FrontlineSMS. But I encourage all public health individuals and organizations to get creative with their use of text messages – never has there been an opportunity so great.
One more fun fact? The fastest texter (a teenager, of course) texted “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human” in 18.19 seconds. How long did it take you?