Junkfood Science: What are you willing to reveal in a text message?

December 10, 2008

What are you willing to reveal in a text message?

Text messaging has become so ubiquitous and we’ve become so comfortable with it, it can be easily to forget to consider how the information we share might be used. Like any technology, it can bring life-saving benefits as well as risks.

Today, there have been a rash of stories across the country — from Minnesota, Florida to Texas — of text message phishing scams, trying to get people to reveal personal information about themselves. No financial institution would send a text message asking for information and the Better Business Bureau advises never provide personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you. [Follow the hyperlinks for more information on these financial scams.]

Receiving a text message asking for your credit card information may be a no brainer for some who wouldn’t think of replying, but what if you receive a text message asking about your lifestyle habits, if you smoke, drink or what you weigh? Would it be as clear how revealing that information might be used in ways that might negatively affect you?

When it comes to healthcare, text messaging can be used in ways that are helpful to life-saving. Clinical trial coordinators have found text messaging a cost effective way to improve recruiting, retention and compliance of participants during clinical trials. And last week, this technology enabled an extraordinary life-saving surgery to be conducted on a 16-year old boy whose arm had been bitten off by a hippo in the Congo, thanks to text messaged instructions from a surgeon 3,000 miles away.

The health information technology industry has been creating ways to use text messaging to reach patients with health promotions, appointment reminders, and to monitor their compliance with health prescriptions. The mobile healthcare business is a growing field and increasingly also being used to monitor lifestyles and adherence to performance measures. Contracting with government and insurance companies, they’re providing patient messaging services to manage care (“patient care messaging”) and encourage patients to follow healthy lifestyles.

A company in the UK has developed a clever scheme to use text messaging for health phishing — to learn if people smoke, drink and their weight. It simply sends people a text message and asks! The answers are automatically recorded in their medical records and government database to be used to determine healthcare coverage or deny benefits, set premiums, and identify people for disease management intervention.

Incredibly, when people were sent a text message asking them “What is your weight?” a full 29% replied. And 49% of people responded when asked if they smoked.

The company, iPlato, is marketing wireless technology to help providers and third-party payers communicate health messages to patients and monitor their healthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking cessation, weight loss, diet, exercise, immunizations, screenings and other initiatives.

They found that text messaging was a more effective way than any other type of communication to get patients to reveal their lifestyle habits and enable companies to update their medical records. Officials with the National Health Services see it as a valuable data collection method and for monitoring purposes in relation to government policy, according to Medical News Today. The service has been adopted by 85% of NHS Hammersmith and Fulham's GP surgeries, the primary care trust covering the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Have you eaten your fruits and vegetables, taken your pills and done your exercise today?

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