The text message has changed the face of social interactions and business operations around the globe. Today, approximately 2.4 billion cellular device consumers use texting, a testament to its massive reach.

Confounding the popular narrative on the dangers of texting, University researchers are discovering potential health benefits of the advent of texting.

In a new trial study, Lorraine R. Buis, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine, found text messaging programs can be successful in helping people track their weight and manage health problems.

“I have great interest in understanding how people can use the devices that they already use in their daily life and how those devices can be used to help manage and improve health,” Buis said.

Buis and her colleagues analyzed a government-subsidized texting service, txt4health. The free mobile program sent participants customized, automatic texts in an effort to reinforce awareness of their diabetes risk levels, and encourages them to make lifestyle changes.

The program was federally funded in 17 communities by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, or Health Information Technology. Three of the communities — Detroit, Cincinnati and New Orleans — piloted txt4health to explore how “health IT” like a texting program could influence user wellness.

Buis and her colleagues evaluated the program in Detroit and Cincinnati. The results in the two cities between the two communities were roughly the same and approximately 30 percent of the participants completed the 14-week program.

“The messages really focused on things like physical activity, diet, links to local resources and other things of that sort,” Buis said.

When participants texted the word “health” to a phone code, the program responded with a survey of questions via text. The survey assessed almost 2,000 individuals’ risk for Type 2 diabetes and, once completed, provided them with a risk profile. Subsequently, the program sent them customized text messages for 14 weeks.

“If you were considered to be at high risk for diabetes, you received messages from one pool, whereas if you were low risk, or if you never completed your risk assessment, you received messages from a different pool,” Buis said.

The study indicated that the text messages helped influence user behavior and increase awareness of their diabetes risk. Roughly 74 percent of participants completed the diabetes risk assessment, 89 percent tracked their weight and 55 percent reported participation in physical activity at least one time during the program.

Buis and her colleagues surveyed 161 participants. While it was not surprising that the people who took time to complete the survey were the ones who responded positively, she said the program’s approach still proved successful.

“I can tell you that people used it, and I can tell you that people said that they changed their behavior, but more work needs to be done to establish the efficacy of these types of programs,” Buis said.

With the stronger evidence provided by the trial, Buis said she is confident these types of programs will be used frequently in the future to improve health as communication technology continues to influence patient care.

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