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Texting Down Diabetes

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Information about diabetes is only a text away

Your cell phone’s incoming text sound might be a bell, a knock, or a whoosh, but whatever it is, you most certainly take notice when you hear it. There’s something about receiving a text that almost instinctually makes people want to check it right away.

That instinct can be put to healthy use, at least that’s what the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI), BlueCross BlueShield of Louisiana and a number of other health care organizations, government agencies and sponsors are banking on. They have banded together for a new initiative called txt4health. Its goal is to put the brakes on our city’s problems with diabetes by encouraging people to engage in preventative behaviors and to detect the disease early on.

“Txt4health is a way for people to get diabetes-related information delivered right to their cell phones,” said John Maginnis, VP of Corporate Communications at BlueCross BlueShield. “It’s designed to help people understand their risk for type 2 diabetes and take steps to lead healthy lives.”

To get started, anyone with a mobile phone simply has to text the word “health” to 300400. That first text will set in motion a series of questions designed to create a health profile that includes details such as age, weight, smoking habits, and so on. Once the profile is set up, the user will receive occasional texts over a 14-week period.

“A lot of messages have to do with the results you can get from exercise and proper nutrition—how small things can make a big difference,” said Maginnis. Depending on the participant’s profile, texts might include information about health complications, encouragements to lose weight and ways to take advantage of free or low-cost community resources.

“If the profile shows the person to be in the high-risk category, a text will urge them to call a number immediately so they can learn how to get fully screened,” said LPHI’s Nebeyou Abebe, who is txt4health’s Campaign Manager. “Those who don’t have insurance can find a nearby health care provider who helps underinsured people and those on public assistance.”

The intended audience for the program is adults who are either pre-diabetic or undiagnosed diabetic. “This is a general consumer campaign. Diabetes affects people of all stripes,” said Abebe. “But we definitely want to reach the poor and communities of color because these groups are disproportionately affected by diabetes.”

As cell phones have become cheaper, poorer Americans favor them. According to the New York Times, nearly 40% of all adults living in poverty use only cell phones, compared with 21% of higher-income adults. And according to a Pew Research Center study, 73% of Americans regularly use text messaging.

The txt4health service works on any phone with SMS capabilities and no iPhone or Android operating systems are needed. Still, text-messaging charges do apply.

The program’s leaders know the need is great in New Orleans. Six out of ten New Orleanians carry at least one of the major risk factors for diabetes. The txt4health program is working on getting the word out through mentions in the press, TV spots, billboards in urban areas, and radio PSAs. Abebe said they are also working with established community groups such as the McFarland Institute and the Neighborhood Partnership Network.

Other organizations involved in txt4health include government and non-profit groups such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Beacon Community Program, the American Diabetes Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Programs similar to txt4health are being simultaneously rolled out in Cincinnati and Detroit, but the New Orleans program is the first to get off the ground. The program’s goal is to sign up 10,000 people within six months of the launch date, which was January 31.

After the 14-week period has ended, recipients will be surveyed on whether they thought the texts were useful and whether they followed up on suggested resources, as well as other matters. “The plan is for us to refine the program every quarter,” said Abebe. “We plan to continue txt4health in New Orleans and roll it out elsewhere in Louisiana.”

-HENRY ALPERT