In today’s perpetually connected world, cell phones have basically become an extra bodily appendage. A report by Pew Research found that 44% of cell phone users sleep with their phone next to their bed so they don’t miss any messages, and 29% of cell phone users say their phone is “something they can’t imagine living without.” Texting on our cell phones is now one of the quickest, simplest ways we communicate. But can receiving a text message have a positive impact on our health? A recent study published in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, says that doctors can keep their patients motivated to make healthy choices by sending them texts. The “TEXT ME” (tobacco, exercise and diet messages) trial was a randomized, controlled trial of over 700 patients with coronary artery disease. Half of the patients received text messages 4 times per week that contained motivating, informative and supportive messages to help them change poor lifestyle habits, while the other half did not.
After 6 months, the patients who received text messages had significantly lower LDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, and body-mass index than those who did not. In addition, patients who received text messages significantly increased their physical activity and reduced their smoking.
Why does texting patients work?
Think about it this way. One of doctors’ largest challenges is to help patients change poor lifestyle practices such as smoking, poor eating habits, sedentary lifestyle, and excessive alcohol consumption. Doctors act as coaches by educating patients on the potential consequences of their unhealthy behavior and by helping them find internal motivators to break their bad habit. But doctors see their patients only a few times per year. Without frequent reminders and encouragement, it is hard to keep patients motivated. So while doctors’ efforts are usually effective in initiating lifestyle changes, they often have little effect on maintaining long term changes.
This is where cell phones can help. Mobile health (or simply, mHealth) technologies are being used to augment patient behavior changes that can reduce health risks and optimize health outcomes. Doctors can now keep their patients motivated outside the office with online consults, interactive health apps and messaging services.
Why use text messaging to communicate with patients?
A recent study by John Hopkins Medicine found that texting is actually the best method of mobile communication for patients of all socioeconomic levels. They surveyed low-income, inner-city pregnant and postpartum women on how they communicate and their preferred method of communication. They found that use of smartphones, social networks and the Internet was variable and dependent on adequate proficiency in English. However, approximately 90% of the women had access to a cell phone and most of the women used texting as their preferred modality of communication.
Because it is such a pervasive, inexpensive and easy way to communicate, texting is a great way for healthcare professionals to connect with patients. By texting patients, doctors can continue the healthy behavior conversation beyond the office and provide continuous care to their patients.