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November 20, 2007

Instant health information via SMS

don't 4get ur pills: Text Messaging for Health is an article in today's Wall Street Journal (the online link is behind the cash wall but won't be for long according to Murdoch), which presents several public health projects in various parts of the world that use SMS texting for relaying timely health information:

In England, women have received text reminders to take their birth-control pills. In Australia, texting helped AIDS patients adhere to complicated drug regimens. And German researchers are examining how text messages can offer psychological support to bulimics. A recent study in New Zealand found that smoking-cessation programs were more effective in conjunction with supportive text messages.

The article quotes Jonathan Linkous, executive director of the American Telemedicine Association about this phenomenon. His says that they're developing guidelines for the appropriate use of SMS for discussing health issues. Revealing a diagnosis, such as cancer, would be forbidden.

Here're some American companies with their spin on the concept:

Intelecare Compliance Solutions Inc, based in New Haven, Conn.,can provide to clients a service "that sends text, email or voice-mail messages reminding users to take their pills, refill prescriptions, get to appointments or check vital signs." [Do you have a pulse? Are your breathing?]

Utah-based Smile Reminder allows dentists, spas and other professionals to remind their clients of appointments, or just a way to keep in touch. This could cross the line in being spam instead of wanted information. I wonder how they strike this balance, especially when you have a per message SMS cost from your carrier?

FishPhone lets you "send a text to the number 30644 with the message "FISH" and the species, and then get back a message." It's just a flat file database on different species of fish, and the current thinking about the food safety issues.

The article does mention a study that suggest that the elderly wouldn't benefit from this new technology "according to a 2006 report from Vodafone Group PLC, the British mobile-phone provider."

The are several qualms I might have about such services besides the spam issue. Do you know who is texting you, and what their qualifications are, or whether they know the right information about you? Are they liable if they have you inject a dose of insulin that's wrong?

Will such services put patients in a more passive role as to monitoring their own health? Would it be possible to determine whether a person should go to the ER through an SMS communication loop?

Is this all part of the effort to commoditize healthcare communication?


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