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Can a Text Message a Day Keep the Doctor Away?

Probably not, but a couple might.

An Australian study recently examined text messaging as a means of giving patients crucial health reminders, finding it to be very effective.  Researchers sent four texts a week at varying times to about 350 people suffering from heart disease, each including personalized reminders relating to the patient’s individual needs.  The messages included encouragements involving exercising more, smoking less, and eating right.

350 more patients who didn’t receive regular texts were also followed, effectively serving as a control to compare with the first group.  After six months, the patients who got the texts were found to be generally more successful in reducing their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and tobacco use than those who didn’t get reminders.

“The benefit to exercise, quitting smoking, and lowering (weight) after six months of text message reminders are substantial,” said Dr. Clara Chow, lead study author and a cardiology researcher at the George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney in Australia

Most participants were male, typically around 58 years old and overweight or obese, and many were taking medications to lower their blood pressure and cholesterol.  Only patients who had already had a heart attack, procedures to restore blood flow to the heart, or tests finding serious blockages or narrowing in the arteries were included in the study.  There have been studies in the past concerning this use for text messaging, but very few have been successful.

Detailed in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the study notes that text messages may be an easy and affordable way to contact patients who need the extra support making lifestyle changes once out of the hospital.  According to the United Nations, six billion of the seven billion people on earth now have mobile phones, making this a highly accessible reminder system.

To contrast that, 17.5 million people die each year globally, and most of these deaths are from heart attacks and strokes, says the World Health Organization (WHO).  An unhealthy diet, tobacco use, and a decline in physical activity may quicken deaths for patients with these complications.  WHO further explains that quitting smoking, getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and consuming five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes in the first place.

“As clinicians, we want to address multiple risk factors in our patients who have had a heart attack,” added Chow. “If these risk factors were reduced over the long term we would expect them to reduce the risk of repeat heart attacks.”

However one limitation of the study, aside from the small size, is its dependence on participants reporting changes in diet, exercise, and smoking habits truthfully, the authors note.  It also raises the question of whether the changes patients underwent will last once the text messages stop or the optimal number of texts needed to make new habits stick, says Dr. Zubin Eapen and Dr. Eric Peterson from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in an editorial.

More research is certainly needed, but the study’s findings suggest that text messaging may indeed play a crucial role in helping patients solidify lifestyle changes, elaborates Eapen.

“It is likely that this relatively low-tech but high touch means of communicating the daily steps that must be taken for long-term behavior change can be used across both prevention and chronic disease management efforts.” he says.

About Jürgen Rae

Jürgen is an avid writer. His love of creating content is only surpassed by his love of consuming it. When he isn't surfing the web or hanging out with friends he can usually be found immersed in music production, sketching, or a good book. Contact Jurgen: [email protected]