Mobile phone technology has gone from the province of the elite to the primary mode of communication for the masses in just a few short decades. In India, famously, more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets. Many parts of the developing world have completely skipped land lines and gone directly from no telecommunications to a proliferation of mobile technology.
What do we, as public health professionals, do with this information?
We have an amazing opportunity to meet people where they are. In days gone by, “meeting people where they are” might have meant going door to door conducting in-person education. We would have had to cast a wide bet across existing organizations such as schools, churches, and community groups to get the health message to the people who would most benefit from it.
The revolution in mobile technology had turned this education model on its head. Instead of a “push” mentality, where professionals give the public what we think they need, we can now choose a “pull” mentality, where individuals indicate their willingness to receive information they deem relevant to their lives.
Text message campaigns are a great example of this phenomenon. Two campaigns in particular stand out for their effectiveness: Txt2Quit and Text4Baby. In each of these campaigns, users opt in via text message and receive messages tailored to their needs and status.
Beyond its effectiveness in bringing information to where the people are, mobile technology is an ideal way to reach under served populations. (This is the BIG reason I’m talking about!)Access to the internet among low-income individuals consistently lags the access rates of those with higher incomes. But mobile devices have started to close that gap. By 2015, most internet access will occur on mobile devices. And according to a report from the Pew Internet Project,
Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic internet access are using wireless connections to go online. Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.
What’s the takeaway here? If your public health work involves marginalized groups – those with low socioeconomic status, minorities, immigrants, or people with disabilities, to name a few – you really need to consider the most effective way of reaching them. The best way to reach the most people just might be in the palm of your hand.