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Texting4Health: Mobile's role in healthcare

By Eric Holmen

The ubiquity of the mobile phone the world over has formed a de facto global network unrivaled by any other human innovation. We have begun to use the power of the new media on this channel to connect with one another, to disseminate information, to poll each other, to vote for our favorite pop idols.

Mobile communication has also been misused to destructive effects as witnessed by the threatening messages sent a few weeks ago to prevent, suppress and disenfranchise dissidents in Zimbabwe.

Isn't it time then we put the mobile phone to a higher purpose?

The vast network created by the high adoption rates and increasing familiarity with mobile capabilities has the potential for far more than the commercial operations we have assigned to it.

The social aspect of connectivity, so well exemplified by Web 2.0, is creeping into the realm of mobile media, and can be harnessed for the greater good.

Some forward-thinking agencies and companies are starting to make use of mobile devices to improve emergency medical care, advance local health initiatives, even affect behavioral change across generations.

On a small scale, text messaging is already being used to make crucial differences in critical situations.

In some communities, emergency medical services have taken to using text messaging to send patient data -- including EKG readings and other data bundles too complex for traditional voice transmission -- ahead to the hospital from the scene, using the unique speed and accuracy of SMS to save time and hasten treatment.

Engaging both the proliferation and range of the text medium, organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and InSTEDD use SMS systems to notify of disease outbreaks in developing nations.

The CDC has SMS initiatives in Haiti for HIV testing and data dissemination, and in rural Africa for delivering health alerts to a population without Internet connectivity but with mobile phones.

InSTEDD uses mobile text messaging in Southeast Asia as a way to keep information a step ahead of a potentially-spreading infectious disease.

Each of these projects maximizes the unique advantages of the mobile text medium: its versatility and speed, the accuracy of text as opposed to voice, and the global distribution of wireless devices, even where computers are lacking.

The increased acceptance and use of SMS in these scenarios will be driven by the growing need to reach wider groups of people while maintaining quickness and accuracy in messaging, a trend that is already becoming reality.

The next generation of text health initiatives, or "texting4health," as I like to call them, is beginning to redefine the text medium as well as its health-based applications.

These initiatives, like the recently launched CancerTXT and a new pilot program being tested at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, use group text as both a support structure for ongoing and recurring health issues and as a method of information dispersal.

CancerTXT, for instance, is a subscription service that allows for an unlimited number of questions to be submitted via SMS and answered in real time by a live social worker.

The Cincinnati Children's program involves sending reminder messages to adolescents who demonstrate a propensity for forgetting to take their medication.

Other initiatives are aimed at curbing eating disorders by forming text-based groups of supporters or forming a network of patients in similar phases for text communication of encouragement.

These programs share the existing benefits of SMS technology, but with the added elements of community and immediate, point-of-contact connection.

Mobile is a big, powerful channel that marketers have recognized for years. More importantly, it is the only medium that allows users access to all other channels and, as such, is capable of great things.

Like the fax machine and telex of yesteryear, waiting for a phone call from the doctor's office for medical results or waiting for test results in the mail will eventually become things of the past.

With improved adoption, increased education and wider acceptance, the use of mobile messaging to improve society's health behavior will become as ubiquitous as texting your "bff." Mobile should be marshaled for the greater good, making the world a healthier place, one mobile at a time.

Eric Holmen is president of SmartReply Inc., an Irvine, CA-based mobile and relationship marketing firm. Reach him at