The Promise of mHealth

We take our mobile devices with us everywhere, don’t we?

Smart phones hold our entire lived within their silicon innards: calendars, emails, contacts, apps… the list goes on and on. We’re practically married to them.

So how can your health nonprofit leverage these devices in your work?

Over the last couple of years, a number of methods have been developed to distribute health messages through mobile devices.

The best developed model for mobile health campaigns are SMS-based, whereby text messages are sent to supporters, patients or clients. There are numerous examples of such SMS systems being used for vaccine reminders, smoking cessation, and disseminating epidemic information. Setting up an SMS campaign is fairly straightforward, with a number of plug-and-play platforms like RapidSMS and EZTexting. For tips on how to plan and implement such a campaign, check out this Texting for Public Health guide published by King County and the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Practice. For instance: put careful thought into the wording of your messages – no abbrevs, and def no emojis 😦 !!!!

Here are two instructional videos produced by King County that describe how SMS campaigns can be used for Public Health:

Overall, the jury’s still out on such programs: everyone seems to agree on the promise of mobile for public health, with some successes while other outcomes have been mixed leading to some decidedly ambiguous opinions about it. It seems that the technology may be more helpful in some contexts than others, so (as with any program) be sure to evaluate your mHealth initiatives thoroughly to ensure that they are adding value to your nonprofit’s mission.

Where next?

Apps seem to hold a lot of promise for public health: they’re already being used to track movements, calories and there’s more to come. Unfortunately, apps are notoriously expensive to develop and maintain (often requiring an expensive third-party developer), and they require some very specialized coding skills that aren’t common among public health practitioners. But isn’t that what we thought about SMS just a couple of years ago? Perhaps as cell phones become smarter and ever easier to program, you’ll start seeing public health apps on your screen next to Words with Friends and Angry Birds.

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