Thursday, February 18, 2016

Technology has infiltrated nearly every area of our lives, include our healthcare, and that’s a good thing according to a recent study. An Australian study shows positive heart health results from an SMS program that sent four texts a month to heart patients.

The study focused on a simple texting program that offered heart health-related advice. The texts offered suggestions for making changes to help blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and they recommended ways to increase physical fitness for good heart health. About 700 adults living in Australia took part in the study, and the results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association less than two weeks ago.

The Program

The program in question put a strategy in place that cost only $10 per person. Heart patients were assigned to receive typical care alone, or to receive normal care along with automated SMS messages for a period of six months. After the study, nearly a third of the text message study participants had reached target levels for four risk factors related to heart disease. Just 10 percent of the normal care group had reached these levels. Target levels included exercising at least five times per week for 30 minutes, achieving a blood pressure below 140 over 90, and not smoking.

The Text Messages

A sample of the pro-heart health messages that the text group received include:
  • • “Studies show that stress, worry & loneliness can increase the risk of heart disease. Please talk to a professional if you need help.”
  • • “Try avoiding adding salt to your foods by using other spices or herbs.”
  • • “Try identifying the triggers that make you want a cigarette & plan to avoid them.”
  • • “Walking is cheap. It can be done almost anywhere. All you need is comfortable shoes & clothing.”

The Unknowns

Since the study lasted just six weeks, it can’t show with certainty whether a program like this can actually improve heart disease risk factors and lead to fewer heart attacks. Other limitations in the study include the fact that there wasn’t an attempt to gauge effectiveness by sending more messages for greater heart-health improvements, and that researchers relied on self-reporting methods of study participants.

The Benefits

Dr. Clara Chow from the University of Sydney’s George Institute for Global Health says that the study’s benefits could possibly “reduce risk of recurrent heart attacks by at least a quarter if they were maintained long-term.” She added: “We think it is really important to see if they can be repeated elsewhere in Australia and internationally, and maintained long-term.”

The Future

Future research must be done in a broader study to determine the overall effectiveness of healthcare text messages, and Dr. Chow is already involved in such studies. She’s part of a group conducting research at about 20 Australian centers, in rural, urban, and indigenous areas, to evaluate if the text messaging program could offer long-lasting benefits for heart patients. If the studies show potential, the program could be a cheap way to encourage heart health and combat heart disease in at-risk people around the world.