Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Why do people still buy notepads and pens? Most of us have at least one computer with word processing capabilities. Most of us have a mobile device with which we can not only create text content, but send it to multiple people - at the same time if we wish. 

But you can’t leave a note on the fridge with a laptop. Writing a phone number down on paper is easier than entering it into a smartphone lurking in the depths of a bag. Simple tools never lose their appeal.

So it is with SMS messaging, which on the mobile communication timescale is as prototypical as the pen and pad. It hasn’t changed in 23 years of existence, and has even faced down the challenge of free messaging apps to remain the most common form of communication. 

Text messaging was firmly embedded in the consciousness long before messaging apps, which is why it has such huge potential when you need to reach - and be sure you reached - large numbers of people. For healthcare providers, SMS is invaluable. In the United States and across the world, it’s the most effective method for sharing health information. One study reckons text messaging could save the healthcare industry billions.

Happily, this is not lost on those in power. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) formed the Text4Health Task Force back in 2010. It’s aim: to help those members of society who are traditionally poorly served by the medical profession, such as those on low income or living in rural areas. 

These concerns are even more pressing in the developing world. In Africa, where feature phones are more prevalent than smartphones, text messaging is a lifeline for people in need of medical care. A scheme in Kenya, mHealth, uses SMS technology to connect some of its poorest citizens with hospitals, relaying vital health information to medical professionals who can respond by dispatching doctors or treatment to the sick. Piloted in Kilifi, one of the poorest regions in the country, such a program is only possible because of text messaging. In Kilifi, and places like it, widespread poverty and geographical remoteness means many people lack internet, let alone expensive computers and smartphones with which to access it. Mobile phone networks are often the only thing connecting poor, rural citizens with the infrastructure and healthcare facilities of the larger towns and cities. 

It’s not just the most vulnerable members of society who are benefitting from SMS healthcare solutions. Common diseases such as diabetes are increasingly being managed with the help of text messaging. In 2011, the DHHS helped launch a program called Text4baby, which sends free health information to expectant mothers via SMS, and stays in touch during the first year of baby’s life. Trials were promising, with the majority of moms who signed up saying they had learned valuable information, and appreciated the appointment and immunization reminders. 

These initiatives highlight an important fact about healthcare: that education is as important as treatment. Imparting information doesn’t require costly - and, to many people, unavailable - doctor’s appointments. It just requires a basic, SMS-enabled mobile phone - something that, in 2015, even the poorest members of society have access to.