Texting 4 Health: Using SMS Campaigns for Public Health


Mobile texting campaigns have changed the way public health campaigns operate in developed, but more importantly, in developing countries. The UN Foundation released a report called Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs. The report highlights a survey done in 2007/2008 of NGO workers which highlighted some interesting trends:

  • 86% of NGO employees use mobile technology in their work
  • 25% said that mobile technology has completely revolutionized the way their organization does business
  • Another 31% reported it would be difficult to do their jobs without mobile technology

Mobile Technology for Social Change The UN report provides detailed case studies on text messaging campaigns to promote public health from a wide variety of topics from connecting youth to sexual health information, to using text messaging as a violence prevention tool, and even for environmental monitoring and conservation. Text message campaigns have been used for weight loss, quitting smoking, and helping people remember to take their prescriptions.

Spreading Information in an Emergency

But one of the most effective uses of texting campaigns is for emergencies. By its definition, mobile technology is just that – mobile. Which means that during an emergency, you can send information rapidly to people without worrying if they are at home. It’s also easier to send and receive text messages in an emergency. The FCC recommends texting, which can go through when calls may not, while also helping to free up ‘space’ on the telephone network for emergency communications. The CDC has even pre-developed a number of emergency text messages that are the correct length and contain contact information.

Check out this SMS campaign in Senegal that spread Ebola awareness, which was developed off of a platform originally designed to help people manage their diabetes through a WHO initiative called “Be Hea@lthy Be mobile”.

Source: WHO

Source: WHO

Some of the messages sent via text included:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water regularly (in picture above).
  • Avoid all contact with people who are sick with or have died from Ebola.
  • Do not touch or eat the meat of dead or sick animals (monkey, rat, warthog, porcupine, pork).

Texting campaigns have been used to promote a wide range of public health topics, and are really only limited by your creativity. What public health messages will you use a text message campaign to promote?


7 thoughts on “Texting 4 Health: Using SMS Campaigns for Public Health

  1. Loved this post. You rounded up a good variety of information and examples of types of campaigns that can be run using SMS, and then provided some excellent concrete examples of actual messages from the ebola campaign. As someone with no background in the idea, utility, or logistics of an SMS campaign, this is exactly the kind of post I would like to see. Great use of images, gifs and hyperlinks to all your sources.

  2. Like Maia said, this post is chock-ful of information and resources about different types of text campaigns. FYI – even UC Berkeley has a emergencytext alert system!

    I wonder if a counterbalance to your post would be topics that don’t lean themselves well to text campaigns.

    • Great idea about things that aren’t good to use for a text campaign, it’s difficult to convey complex concepts, so I wouldn’t want to tackle issues that are too complicated.

  3. Rachel, great post. I GREATLY appreciate short summaries to long studies 🙂

    I also really enjoyed the link to pre-written emergency texts set up by the CDC. Do you have any idea how they space out some of the less time-sensitive ones (ex\ don’t mix bleach and ammonia). I wonder if it’s better to mix up the messages you send, or to send a few in a row that are on the same topic to drive the point home. Any thoughts on this?

    • Me too 🙂 More groups need to think about executive summaries! I don’t know how they space out the texts, but if the information is important to have, I tend to think sending out the texts in groups would be better.

  4. Great post! I could totally relate to the post about spreading information during an emergency. The department I work for now has been working on a project called ‘Alert SCC’ (Alert Santa Clara County) It’s intention is to alert all Santa Clara County residents during a natural or man-made disaster. The project is also supposed to alert you if something is going in your neighborhood. I found your post to be very informative and a great use of the pictures. Do you think that some of these messages would be more powerful if a picture was included? Such as in the text above that says to wash your hands with water regularly.

    • Pictures are great, but I think they have some potential drawbacks. They may cost people more money and are larger in general to send, so may slow down a mass emergency text. But if it’s not an emergency, I think it would be cool to include photos.

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