Old-fashioned technology in the era of "bling": Is there a future for text messaging in health care? Academic Article uri icon


  • In the quest to discover the next high-technology solution to solve many health problems, proven established technologies are often overlooked in favor of more “technologically advanced” systems that have not been fully explored for their applicability to support behavior change theory, or used by consumers. Text messages or SMS is one example of an established technology still used by consumers, but often overlooked as part of the mobile health (mHealth) toolbox. The purpose of this paper is to describe the benefits of text messages as a health promotion modality and to advocate for broader scale implementation of efficacious text message programs. Text messaging reaches consumers in a ubiquitous real-time exchange, contrasting the multistep active engagement required for apps and wearables. It continues to be the most widely adopted and least expensive mobile phone function. As an intervention modality, text messaging has taught researchers substantial lessons about tailored interactive health communication; reach and engagement, particularly in low-resource settings; and embedding of behavior change models into digital health. It supports behavior change techniques such as reinforcement, prompts and cues, goal setting, feedback on performance, support, and progress review. Consumers have provided feedback to indicate that text messages can provide them with useful information, increase perceived support, enhance motivation for healthy behavior change, and provide prompts to engage in health behaviors. Significant evidence supports the effectiveness of text messages alone as part of an mHealth toolbox or in combination with health services, to support healthy behavior change. Systematic reviews have consistently reported positive effects of text message interventions for health behavior change and disease management including smoking cessation, medication adherence, and self-management of long-term conditions and health, including diabetes and weight loss. However, few text message interventions are implemented on a large scale. There is still much to be learned from investing in text messaging delivered research. When a modality is known to be effective, we should be learning from large-scale implementation. Many other technologies currently suffer from poor long-term engagement, the digital divide within society, and low health and technology literacy of users. Investing in and incorporating the learnings and lessons from large-scale text message interventions will strengthen our way forward in the quest for the ultimate digitally delivered behavior change model.

publication date

  • 2019