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Texting Health Information to Teens

Around the world, millions, if not billions of people communicate by sending text messages on their mobile phones. Rose Hoban tells us about an effort to use the technology to help teenagers stick to their medication schedule.

In the United States, texting is particularly popular with teenagers. So, Doctor Maria Britto thought why not send teens information about their health using text messages? Britto treats mostly teenaged patients at Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio.

"When you're in the room with patients sometimes, not infrequently, you're talking to them and they're texting at the same time," she says. "And so, one of our team people just said, 'Why don't we think about using texting as a way to communicate with them when they're not here, to help them manage better since that is so much a part of their lives and they're texting all the time?'"

Someone in Britto's clinic began to send texts to patients with asthma, reminding them to take their medicine. "She would send them a message that said something like 'don't forget to take your asthma medicine, have a good day,'" Britto says. "Kids have liked it and anecdotally, it seems to be a useful thing."

Now Britto is studying the practice more formally. She's gotten a grant to determine how feasible it is to use texting to stay in contact with a lot of teens. She says it is probably better than calling them on the phone.

"Almost every kid who has a phone texts," she points out. "And in fact, many of them text way more than they use it in the way… the conventional way, sort of live voice."

Britto says, potentially, texting could extend beyond just patients with asthma. "There's no reason that the same type of reminder system that works with asthma wouldn't be likely to work with diabetes and cystic fibrosis and, you know, all kinds of different conditions," she says. "If we roll this out across even just our hospital we would be talking about thousands and thousands of kids."

Right now, Britto is recruiting kids for her pilot study. She says it will take several years to see if texting actually helps teenaged patients do better.