mHealth can mean everything from consults over a smartphone, AICD alerts transmitted by a car, or even embedded sensors in clothes for remote monitoring. In fact, in the United States over 150 billion texts were sent in 2009 alone. With that degree of usage, the mobile communications platform is another natural tool of mHealth interventions.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a new task force dubbed Text4Health which has a goal of providing innovative recommendations to support health text messaging and mHealth programs.

While this concept may seem far-fetched, the task force is tapping into the frenetic adoption of mobile phone platforms in America. Text messaging is ubiquitious; therefore, HHS wants to develop programs and/or partnerships with the overall aim of improving public health outcomes that revolve around such technologies.

” In November 2010, HHS established the Text4Health Task Force as part of the agency’s commitment to promoting innovation at HHS. The task force, comprised of public health experts across HHS, was charged with providing recommendations for HHS’ role in encouraging and developing health text messaging initiatives which would deliver health information and resources to individuals via their mobile phones. “

The full task force recommendations are available to peruse on the HHS website. There are a total of 7 recommendations regarding text messaging. Some of the report recommendations include:

  • HHS will develop and host evidence-based health text message libraries that leverage HHS’ rich and scientifically-based information
  • HHS will develop further evidence on the effectiveness of health text messaging programs
  • HHS explore and develop partnerships to create, implement and disseminate health text messaging and mHealth programs
  • HHS will form a mobile health (mHealth) community of practice, initially led by HHS staff in the Office of the Secretary, that meets regularly (e.g., monthly or quarterly) to discuss and coordinate mHealth activities, including health text messaging, across the Department.

Guiding principles of the Text4Health task force that will be observed include:

  • Guiding Principle #1: Determine the role of HHS in the health text message project.
  • Guiding Principle #2: Establish plans for program implementation and evaluation.
  • Guiding Principle #3: Delineate partnerships, governance structure and business models.

One such example of how this actually plays out is the smoking initiative. To demonstrate some of recommendations in use, HHS has invested $5 million dollars to develop its eHealth/mHealth smoking cessation resources since January 2010. The overall goal of this project is geared toward decreasing smoking among teens, and adults. The result has been the  launching of  several new initiatives that have been guided by the HHS Text4Health Task Force.

“The National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health is launching the SmokeFreeTXT program, a mobile smoking cessation service specifically designed for teens and young adults across the United States. The service is an extension of the core smoking cessation website, , which consistently achieves between 70,000 — 100,000 visits on a monthly basis.”

NCI is also launching a library of smoking cessation messages which provide an interactive text-based intervention for adult smokers called QuitNowTXT.

“The QuitNowTXT text messages offer tips, motivation, encouragement and facts based on information tailored to the user’s response. These mobile texting resources will be integrated into the department’s comprehensive tobacco control strategy to further address the burden of tobacco use across our nation.”

Finally, HHS is also actively persuing a global public-private partnership to make the QuitNowTXT program available to other countries to reach adult tobacco users.

“This initiative aims to collaborate with interested countries to support mHealth/text-based demonstration projects using this new text messaging resource, which are now freely available on the mHealth Alliance’s website. Drawing on the experience gained from these demonstration projects, the countries and partners will identify and disseminate best practices for tobacco cessation mHealth/text-based interventions.”

Text messaging as another tool in the arsenal of mHealth is certainly in its infancy, but this investment of both funds and confidence suggests a fair amount of promise. It will be interesting in particular to see what sort of efficacy data emerges from this program, as one would expect given NIH involvement.